Noncommercial radio stations ignoring their FCC public file obligations should be expecting to enter into consent decrees at license renewal time obligating them to take formal steps to monitor compliance and submit information to the FCC on any issues that arise. In the last few weeks, we have seen at least four such decrees announced by the FCC (e.g. here, here, and here) imposing such obligations in exchange for the grant of pending renewal applications. In each consent decree, the FCC notes the hardships imposed by the pandemic, presumably suggesting that, had these been more ordinary times, the licensees would have faced steeper penalties.
The consent decrees themselves resemble the consent decrees entered into between the FCC and commercial broadcasters who have not adequately maintained the documents required to be in the political file that is part of each commercial station’s public inspection file (see our articles here and here). The four recent consent decrees with the noncommercial broadcasters require that they take the following actions:
- They must appoint a Compliance Officer – a senior manager who will report to the “Chief Executive Officer” or equivalent of the licensee. The Compliance Officer is responsible for making sure that the licensee observes all public file obligations and all terms of the consent decree.
- Within 30 days, the licensee must adopt a Compliance Plan that includes:
- A written Compliance Manual explaining all requirements of the public file rules and is distributed to all employees who deal with any aspect of the rules.
- A training program must be conducted for all employees on their obligations under the public file rules.
- A year after the effective date of the Consent Decree, the licensee must submit a Compliance Report to the FCC certifying its compliance with the rules and how it complied.
- If in any instance, the licensee does not comply with the rules, it must report any instance of noncompliance to the FCC within 10 days of its discovery.
As we noted here in the case of a commercial broadcaster who did not comply with the terms of a consent decree, noncompliance can bring big penalties.
What issues triggered these decrees? From our review of the renewal applications of the stations involved in the decrees, the stations certified compliance with the public file rules but in fact had not complied with many of the most basic requirements. It appears that the FCC itself checked the public files of these stations and found the instances of noncompliance.
What were some of the missing documents? All commercial and noncommercial full-power stations, for instance, are required to include Quarterly Issues Programs lists in their files (see our articles here on this obligation). Most of these stations apparently did not do so. Stations, commercial and noncommercial, also need to file Biennial Ownership Reports – similarly missing in most of the files here (see our article here on the FCC’s action making the Biennial Report obligation applicable to noncommercial stations on the mostly the same terms as commercial stations). These Biennial Reports will again be due on December 1, 2021.
While they will not be in all public files of noncommercial stations, some of these stations will also be required to include information about programming that interrupts the normal station programs to raise funds for a noncommercial organization other than the station itself (see our article here), and also will need to include a list of donors who donate to the station to support the airing of a specific program (as opposed to a donation to the station that supports general operations, which does not need to be noted in the public file). Stations with 5 or more full-time employees also have EEO public file obligations (see our article here on the most recent EEO audit notice that listed many noncommercial broadcasters).
These are but some of the public file obligations that noncommercial stations need to observe to avoid FCC scrutiny – and potentially bigger problems in future renewal cycles or if their noncompliance is discovered at other times. So be observant of your public file obligations – as the FCC is watching!