It’s a school year like no other – and broadcast stations that are licensed to colleges and other schools are likely as disrupted by the pandemic as is anyone else. As we wrote here, the FCC in March allowed noncommercial radio stations licensed to educational institutions to consider period when schools were closed for in-person instruction as school breaks or “recess” periods when the minimum operating schedule for these stations did not apply. Now that we are beginning a new school year, how is the FCC treating these stations?
From informal conversations that I have had with the FCC, the guidance delivered above is still in place – so if your school is still virtual, your radio station need not meet the minimum operating schedule required of noncommercial stations. You can continue to treat the period when students are generally not on campus as a recess when the station does not need to meet these minimum operating requirements.
The FCC’s minimum operating schedule for noncommercial radio stations as set out in Section 73.561 of the FCC rules is as follows:
All noncommercial educational FM stations are required to operate at least 36 hours per week, consisting of at least 5 hours of operation per day on at least 6 days of the week; however, stations licensed to educational institutions are not required to operate on Saturday or Sunday or to observe the minimum operating requirements during those days designated on the official school calendar as vacation or recess periods
If your school has welcomed students back to campus and is operating other student activities, then the question gets murkier. There may well be situations where only limited students are allowed back (e.g. only the freshman class as is the case at some schools) and where the students who have experience in running the station are still learning remotely. And there obviously are schools that are open – but may be encouraging physical distancing or cleaning protocols that the radio station operations cannot meet. I’m told that the FCC recognizes the difficulties that stations may face in the current environment – and in these situations where schools are open or partially open to students, if the station cannot meet the minimum operating requirements set out above, the FCC will likely be willing to grant a station temporary authority to remain silent. And that this likely can be done informally, by an email to the FCC’s Audio Division employees.
But talk to your own station attorney about these issues – and consider issues like the statute that says that a station that has been silent for a year will lose its license unless they can show compelling public interest benefits to preserve the license (see our list of some pandemic cautions for broadcasters here). Ask for guidance as to how these rules would apply to your operations in this most unusual time.