The FCC has once again started sending out email notices to broadcast stations that are not in compliance with their online public file obligations. This follows a set of notices sent in early December, where the FCC first warned specific stations that there were issues with their online public inspection files (see our article here). The new email notices seem to be sent to two classes of stations – those that have done nothing to their online public files, and those that have activated the files, but not uploaded their Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists to those files. Some of the new notices follow up on notices sent in December. Both sets of notices ask for reports to the FCC from the stations that received the notice of corrective actions that they have taken.
We have been warning of the FCC’s concern about incomplete or inactive online public files for some time, and the potential impact that noncompliance could have on license renewals, which start for radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia in June 2019, with pre-filing public announcements of those filings due to begin on April 1 (see our article here). The renewal obligation for radio moves across the country with stations in a few specific states filing every other month in this three-year renewal cycle (for more information see, for instance, our articles here and here). Clearly, this set of emails is a warning to stations that the FCC is watching their public files, and that compliance problems will bring issues, and probably fines, if the files are not complete by license renewal time. The emails that have been sent out do not target every station in noncompliance with the public file obligations – but instead seem to just be a sampling of those stations – so do not relax and assume compliance simply because you did not receive any contact from the FCC.
As we have written before (here and here), the biggest issues will likely be with stations not uploading Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists and, for stations that are part of clusters with 5 or more full-time employees, Annual EEO Public Inspection file reports. Quarterly Issues/Programs Lists were the biggest source of fines in the last license renewal window – resulting in fines of from $10,000 to $15,000 for stations missing lists for multiple quarters in the 8-year long renewal term. In the last renewal term, those fines were issued when stations self-reported violations, before the FCC staffers could check on compliance from their Washington DC offices just by looking at the online public file of renewal applicants. So we expect more fines this time around. As we wrote here, the Quarterly Issues/Programs lists are the only official documents demonstrating how a station served the public interest – so take them seriously, as the FCC certainly does.
Look at your online public file now and make sure that you are in compliance with all public file obligations to insure that you do not have issues that will cost you at renewal time – or at any other time that the FCC decides to use its enforcement authority to start issuing fines.