With the holiday season getting smaller in the rear-view mirror and many parts of the country dealing with ice, snow, and single-digit temperatures, broadcasters could be forgiven for dreaming about the sunshine and warmth that come with spring.  Before spring arrives, however, broadcasters need to tend to important regulatory matters in February.  And, if you find yourself eager to plan past February, use our 2020 Broadcasters’ Calendar as a reference tool for tracking regulatory dates through the end of 2020.

But focusing on the month ahead, by February 3, all AM, FM, LPFM, and FM translator stations in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi must file their license renewal applications.  For the full-power stations in the state, there’s an additional EEO task to complete irrespective of how many employees a station employment unit (SEU) has.  Before filing for license renewal, stations in these three states must submit FCC Schedule 396. This schedule is the Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Program Report, which is a reporting to the FCC of the SEU’s equal employment opportunity activities for the last license period (SEUs with fewer than five full-time employees are not required to maintain an EEO recruitment program and are only required to check a box that they have fewer than 5 full-time employees and skip ahead to the certification).  The sequencing here is important: When filing for license renewal, the application (Schedule 303-S) asks for the file number of your already-filed Schedule 396.  So, without having already filed the schedule, you won’t be able to complete your renewal application.
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While many of us were trying to enjoy the holidays, the world of regulation kept right on moving, seemingly never taking time off.  So we thought that we ought to highlight some of the actions taken by the FCC in the last couple weeks and to also remind you of some of the upcoming January regulatory deadlines.

Before Christmas, we highlighted some of the regulatory dates for January – including the Quarterly Issues Programs Lists due to be placed in the online public file of all full-power stations by January 10.  Also on the list of dates in our post on January deadlines are the minimum SoundExchange fees due in January for most radio stations and other webcasters streaming programming on the Internet.  January also brings the deadline for Biennial Ownership Reports (postponed from their normal November 1 filing deadline).

In that summary of January regulatory dates, we had mentioned that the initial filing of the new Annual Children’s Television Programming Report would be due this month.  But, over the holiday week, the FCC extended that filing deadline for that report until March 30 to give broadcasters time to familiarize themselves with the new forms.  The FCC will be doing a webinar on the new form on January 23.  In addition, the FCC announced that many of the other changes in the children’s television rules that were awaiting review under the Paperwork Reduction Act had been approved and are now effective.  See our article here for more details.
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The FCC recently proposed modifying its rules prohibiting a radio station in one service (either AM or FM) from duplicating more than 25% of the weekly programming of another station in the same service if there is more than 50% overlap of the principal community contour of either of the stations.  The FCC this

With many Americans using the holiday season to rest and recharge, broadcasters should do the same but not forget that January is a busy month for complying with several important regulatory deadlines for broadcast stations.  These include dates that regularly occur for broadcasters, as well as some unique to this month.  In fact, with the start of the lowest unit rate windows for primaries and caucuses in many states, January is a very busy regulatory month.  So don’t head off to Grandma’s house without making sure that you have all of your regulatory obligations under control.

One date applicable to all full-power stations is the requirement that, by Friday, January 10, 2020, all commercial and noncommercial radio and television stations must upload to their online public file their quarterly issues/programs list for the period covering October 1 – December 31, 2019.  The issues/programs list demonstrates the station’s “most significant treatment of community issues” during the three-month period covered by each quarterly report.  We wrote about the importance of these reports many times (see, for instance, our posts here and here).  With all public files now online, FCC staff, viewers or listeners, or anyone with an internet connection can easily look at your public file, see when you uploaded your Quarterly Report, and review the contents of it.  In the current renewal cycle, the FCC has issued two fines of $15,000 each to stations that did not bother with the preparation of these lists (see our posts here and here on those fines).  In past years, the FCC has shown a willingness to fine stations or hold up their license renewals or both (see here and here) over public file issues where there was some but not complete compliance with the obligations to retain these issues/programs lists for the entire renewal term.  For a short video on the basics of the quarterly issues/programs list and the online public inspection file, see here.
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Last week, the FCC adopted an order making numerous changes to its processes for selecting winning applicants among mutually-exclusive applicants for new noncommercial broadcast stations, including noncommercial, reserved band full power FM stations and LPFMs. Applicants are “mutually exclusive” when their technical proposals are in conflict – meaning that if one is granted it would create interference to the other so that the other cannot also be allowed to operate. The changes adopted by the FCC, which we wrote about when first proposed here, affect not only the process of applying for new noncommercial stations and the system for resolving conflicts, but also address the holding period for new stations once construction permits are granted, and the length of permits for LPFM stations.

In cases involving mutually exclusive applications for new noncommercial stations, the FCC uses a “points system” to determine which of the mutually-exclusive applicants should have its application granted. The point system relies on paper hearings to determine which applicant has the most points, awarding preferences on factors such as whether they have fewer interests in other broadcast facilities, whether they are local organizations, and whether they are part of state-wide networks.
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On Friday, the FCC released a Public Notice setting out the rules for the auction for new FM channels, which will being in April. We wrote about that auction when it was first announced here. The Public Notice sets out the bidding process for the auction, and the dates for pre-auction filing deadlines necessary to participate in the auction. The notice also rejects several petitions asking that additional channels be added to the auction and one request for a deletion from the auction list. Thus, the channels to be sold in the auction remain the same as originally proposed. A list of the 130 available FM construction permits, with the minimum bid necessary for each of these channels, is available here.

The Public Notice sets out the following pre-auction dates and deadlines that those planning to participate in the auction must observe. These dates are as follows:

  • Auction Tutorial Available (via Internet) by January 22, 2020
  • Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Window Opens January 29, 2020, 12:00 noon Eastern Time (ET)
  • Short-Form Application (FCC Form 175) Filing Window Deadline February 11, 2020, 6:00 p.m. ET
  • Upfront Payments (via wire transfer) March 20, 2020, 6:00 p.m. ET
  • Mock Auction April 24, 2020
  • Auction Bidding Begins April 28, 2020

The “short-form” is an application that anyone wishing to participate in the auction must file. This short-form application sets out the channels in which the applicant is interested and some basic information about the applicant. Specific site locations that an applicant wants to protect can also be listed in the short form. Upfront payments are required monetary deposits that must be made by auction participants in amounts sufficient to cover the minimum fees for the channels on which the applicant is interested in bidding. More details on the information required in the forms, and the mechanics of the auction, are set out in the Public Notice which should be carefully reviewed by parties interested in any of these construction permits authorizing the new stations. 
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The FCC yesterday issued Notices of Apparent Liability to two pirate radio operators that totaled over $600,000, the largest fines ever issued for those operating radio stations without an FCC-issued license.  Both operated in the Boston area.  One was fined $151,005 for operating one station (press release here, the full Notice of Apparent Liability is available here). The second was fined $453,015 for operating three transmitters in the area (press release here, the full NAL is available here).  The FCC noted that these were the maximum fines that they could impose for these violations under current law, and that the fines were the result of several years of investigations and warnings to the operators.

Commissioner O’Rielly, in a separate statement, noted that he wished that the FCC had the authority to impose even higher fines and to proceed more quickly against these operators than allowed under current FCC procedures.  The Commissioner noted that he would be working with Congress to try to get legislation passed to speed the process and raise the penalties against pirate operators. We wrote about one of those legislative proposals here that would impose fines of $100,000 a day up to $2 million against these pirates and speed the process necessary to impose these fines.  The legislation would also allow fines directly against landowners and others enabling the operations of these stations.
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The audio from analog channel 6 TV stations can be heard on the FM dial at 87.7 – which is below the lowest official point on the standard FM band in the US (which ends at 88.1) but is nevertheless tunable on most FM radios. Over the last decade, many LPTV stations on channel 6, in markets where they had no other viable business model, turned to providing FM service through these stations. The FCC has for years inquired if these operations, often referred to as Franken FMs, should be permitted (see our articles here and here) but has never moved to stop it. Now, with the 2021 deadline for the conversion of LPTV stations to digital operation, LPTV operators have asked the FCC to bless the post-conversion operation of an analog audio signal embedded in the digital Channel 6 LPTV station transmissions so that these FM broadcast can continue, following up on a proceeding begun in 2014 (see our article here). This week, the FCC issued a Public Notice asking for additional comments as to whether these Franken FM operations should be allowed to continue, and if so what rules should govern them.

The release of this Public Notice came as somewhat of a surprise, as a similar question had recently been asked in an FCC proceeding looking primarily at LPFM rule changes, but also addressing issues about the relation of TV channel 6 to FM broadcasters (see our article here on that proceeding). In this week’s Public Notice, the FCC suggests that the LPFM proceeding is asking only whether the elimination of protections between channel 6 TV stations and noncommercial radio stations in the reserved band, as proposed in that proceeding, is compatible with the continued operation of these Franken FMs after the digital conversion deadline. It is the proceeding in which these additional comments are now being requested that will address how these stations will be regulated on a permanent basis in the future. To determine that future, this week’s Public Notice poses many specific questions about the continued operation of these Franken FMs.
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At its October open meeting, the FCC adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking looking to abolish its rule that bars a broadcast licensee from prohibiting a competitor from using a “unique” transmitter site that it controls. The rule was adopted decades ago and never used. It provides that a license renewal would not be granted

November is not one of those months with due dates for renewal filings, EEO public file reports or quarterly issues programs reports. Some of those obligations wait until December, when renewal filings for radio stations in Georgia and Alabama are due by December 2 (as December 1 falls on a weekend). Due for uploading on or before December 1 are EEO public file reports for station employment units with 5 or more full-time employees for radio or television stations in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Vermont.

November 1 does signal the first day on which radio and TV stations can file their Biennial Ownership Reports. As we wrote here, the FCC has extended the deadline date for those filings until January 31, 2020 as the FCC is making refinements in its forms in the LMS filing system. Reports are to reflect the licensee’s ownership as of October 1, 2019 so stations have the information that they need and can start filing their reports later this week.
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