The FCC’s Audio Division yesterday issued “Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” to five radio stations; all owned by Cumulus Licensing. Each of these notices proposed a fine (called a “forfeiture” in FCC-speak) of either $10,000 (here) or $12,000 (here, here, here and here), all for violations of the FCC public file rules. All of these stations, located in close proximity in eastern South Carolina, were missing numerous sets of Quarterly Issues Programs lists that should have been included in their public files in the last license renewal term. The stations voluntarily reported that the lists were missing in their license renewal applications filed in 2011. In clearing up these long-pending renewals, the FCC proposed to issue these fines – again emphasizing that even this deregulatory FCC does not hesitate to enforce the rules that remain on the books (see our previous warnings here and here).

The release of these proposed fines also sends a warning to broadcasters about to convert to the online public inspection file (as all radio stations will need to have their public file online by March 1 – see our discussion of the online public file here), that these reports will be able to be viewed by anyone, anywhere, to see if they have been prepared and timely placed into the stations online public file. Each document deposited in the public file is date-stamped as to when it was uploaded. So anyone trying to assess a station’s compliance with the public file rule can see whether the Quarterly Issues Programs list was uploaded to the file and whether the upload was timely – within 10 days of the end of each calendar quarter.

This warning takes on added significance as, believe it or not, we are approaching the beginning of another license renewal cycle. The first radio license renewal applications in the next license renewal cycle will begin with the filing of license renewal applications by stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia in June, 2019 – just over a year away. TV license renewal will start a year later. During the 3-year radio renewal cycle, every other month a group of stations in certain states will have to file their renewal (see the calendar for filing radio renewals here – TV is in the same order, just one year later).. In the last cycle, the largest single cause of fines was missing Quarterly Issues Programs lists. And these violations were all self-reported by stations or, on occasion, discovered by interested local residents who actually visited the paper public file maintained at the station’s main studio. This time around, the FCC, or interested public-interest groups, will be able to raise questions about a station’s compliance with the rules from afar – just by looking at the online public file.

These Quarterly Issues Programs lists are taken seriously by the FCC, as they are the only official station records of how broadcasters served the public in their local service area. 30 years ago, stations were required to keep more detailed records of all their public service programming – in the form of program logs and other documents that itemized news and public affairs programs, PSAs, commercials and all other aspects of station performance. At license renewal time, the FCC would pick 7 days from the previous license renewal term, and a station would have to report on the amount of news and public affairs programming it carried on those days, and the number of PSAs that were run on the station. When, during a prior deregulatory period in the 1980s, the FCC did away with specific requirements for the amount of non-entertainment programming required to be broadcast by every station (and the requirement that stations maintain program logs as official FCC records), it left stations with more discretion as to how they addressed local issues. But the FCC substituted for the detailed paperwork that it used to require the Quarterly Issues Programs lists as the document in which broadcasters would show how they served the public interest.  These lists are now the only officially-mandated document to show how you served the interests of your community (and, as we noted here, they take on added importance to demonstrate local service by stations that decide to no longer maintain a manned main studio).

So, by the 10th day of April, July, October and January, each station (commercial or noncommercial) is supposed to list the most important issues that faced its community in the prior quarter, as determined by station management, and the programs that the station aired to address those issues. We always suggest that stations have multiple programs that address each issue, and that some of the programs that address each issue contain in-depth discussion of the issue. While the FCC has said that even a PSA campaign may be listed as programming that addresses an important issue, such spots should never be the only program that addresses an issue of importance in any quarter (see our summary here of a case where the FCC made this clear).

Any program that addresses an issue of importance in a serious manner can be listed as being issue-responsive, even if the program where the discussion takes place might normally be considered an entertainment program. So, if one of your issues is an increased aging population, it is possible that a serious discussion of the issues facing the aging that takes place in an entertainment TV program could be considered issue-responsive. Similarly, if your morning DJ who normally spins records gets incensed by traffic issues on his way to work one morning and decides to turn his program into a call-in show to discuss local problems with the roads, that discussion can be considered issue responsive. News segments and public affairs programs are of course issue-responsive.

Make sure that multiple programs address each issue in a serious manner. For each issue that you have found in your community, list all of the programs that you aired that addressed the issue. For each program, include the name of the program on which the issue-responsive segment aired, the duration of the discussion, the time and date that it aired and a brief description of what the segment was and how it addressed the issue. As you are giving the time and date, it probably does not look good if all of your issue-responsive programming airs at 5 AM on Sunday morning.

While there have been some calls to change the way that issue-responsive programming is addressed, at this point, the Quarterly Issues Programs lists are all that we have. So treat them seriously to avoid the kinds of issues (and the accompanying fines) that are being faced by the stations who received the notices of apparent liability yesterday.