FM Translators and LPFM

As we wrote here, the FCC recently adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider changes to its rules dealing with applications for new noncommercial educational stations and LPFM stations. The FCC plans to publish that Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register tomorrow, making comments due May 20, 2019,

The FCC on Friday issued a Public Notice reminding radio stations that the license renewal cycle begins in June, when all stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia are due to electronically file their license renewal applications, along with the Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Report on Form 396 (the 396 being required of all full-power stations, even those with fewer than 5 full-time employees). It is still unclear whether these applications will be filed using the current electronic database for radio (called CDBS), or whether the FCC will require radio stations to use the new electronic database that TV stations have been using for several years now (called LMS).

The renewal filing obligation applies to LPFMs and FM translator stations, as well as full-power stations. As we have written many times in recent months (for example here and here), after the June filing deadline for these Mid-Atlantic states, the renewal cycle moves south – with stations in the Carolinas filing by August 1. Every other month for the next 3 years, radio stations in other states will file their renewal applications. The order in which stations file is available on the FCC’s website, here. The TV renewal cycle starts one year later, beginning in June 2020.
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The FCC at its meeting yesterday adopted the two broadcast items that it was expected to consider (see our article on the agenda here) – one agreeing to eliminate the FCC Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Report and a second starting a proceeding to reexamine certain aspects of the criteria used to select the applications to be granted for new Noncommercial Educational radio and television and LPFM stations. We wrote about the draft order to abolish the Form 397 here, and the draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the noncommercial criteria here. We will post the final orders in these proceedings here when the FCC releases them – quite possibly later today (Update, 2/15/2019, 1:50 PM EST – the text of the NCE/LPFM NPRM is now available here; Update 2:30 PM EST – the text of the order that will eliminate the Form 397 is now available here).

The elimination of the Form 397 does not become effective immediately as it still needs to be published in the Federal Register and undergo Paperwork Reduction Act review. So TV stations in the northeast, who are due to file their mid-term reports in the coming months, will continue to have this obligation. The change will have no practical effect for more than 4 years, until the first mid-term after the upcoming license renewal cycle hits in June 2023 (see our article here on the start of the radio license renewal cycle in June 2019). The elimination of this report also does not have any substantive effect on the obligations of full-power broadcasters who are part of employment units with 5 or more full-time employees to widely dissemination information about their job openings and to engage in community outreach efforts (even if they have no job openings) to educate the public about employment opportunities in broadcasting and to train existing employees for more advanced positions. So this really is just the elimination of a paperwork burden.
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The government shutdown continues to create a confusing situation for government agencies faced with statutory obligations that are difficult to honor without a working federal bureaucracy. The FCC by law is required to hold a monthly public meeting but, when the bulk of its employees are furloughed, it is difficult to meaningfully adhere to that

As we wrote on Friday, the government shutdown affects many aspects of FCC operations – and could affect the ability of the FCC to hold its regular monthly meeting, now scheduled for January 30. With the FCC likely shut down for most of this week, just before closing, the FCC released its agenda for the January 30 meeting (which would normally have been released this week – 3 weeks before the meeting). One interesting item on the agenda was a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to change certain aspects of the criteria used to evaluate applicants for new noncommercial broadcast stations and LPFMs, and the operations of those new stations after a construction permit is issued. The draft NPRM is here. As with all draft items released with the agenda of an upcoming FCC meeting, the draft is subject to change before that meeting.

It appears that the NPRM was not prompted by any single group representing noncommercial broadcasters, but instead raises a number of issues and problems that have been raised before the FCC in comparative cases in the last decade, which use a “points system” process to determine which mutually-exclusive noncommercial applicant should have its application granted. The point system relies on paper hearings to determine which applicant has the most points, awarding applicants preferences on factors such as whether they have few other broadcast interests, whether they are local organizations, and whether they are part of state-wide networks. The NPRM also looks at the restrictions on what successful applicants can do, once they receive their construction permits to build new stations – including the length of LPFM CPs, the transferability of those CPs, and restrictions imposed on changes to certain NCE technical facilities after a CP grant.
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November is perhaps the month with the lightest schedule of routine FCC regulatory filing obligations – with no requirements for EEO Public File Reports, Quarterly Issues Programs or Children’s Television Reports. Nor are there other routine obligations that come up in the course of any year, though during November of 2019, broadcasters will be preparing for next year’s December 1 Biennial Ownership Report deadline. So does that mean that there are no dates of interest this month for broadcasters? As always, there are always a few dates of which you need to keep track.

The one November date applicable to all broadcasters is the requirement for the filing of ETRS Form Three, which gives a detailed analysis of the results of the nationwide EAS test conducted on October 3. Stations should have filed Form Two on the day of the test reporting whether or not the test was received. They now need to follow up with the more detailed Form Three report by November 19. See our article here for more information.
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Yesterday, the FCC issued a hearing designation order – though one with much lower stakes than the last designation order issued by the FCC which seemingly resulted in the termination of the proposed Sinclair-Tribune merger. Yesterday’s order was at almost the opposite end of the spectrum from a massive merger of TV companies – the upcoming hearing will determine whether to revoke the license of a Low Power FM station. Issues were raised as to whether the licensee in its FCC applications lied to the FCC about whether its board of directors was made up of US citizens – there being substantial evidence that the board members were in fact citizens of other countries.

As we wrote here when the Sinclair acquisition was designated, hearings are most commonly used when the FCC is faced with disputed issues of fact. But hearings are also required in some cases by the Communications Act, including in cases where there is a proposed revocation of an existing license, as appears to be the reason for the order yesterday – though the FCC also lists a number of issues in the LPFM case that need a factual review. These include whether the licensee made misrepresentations to or lacked candor with the FCC (essentially whether the licensee had lied to the FCC in its applications when it said its directors were US citizens), whether the license was controlled by aliens (i.e. foreign citizens), whether the licensee failed to keep information on file at the FCC accurate and up to date, and whether the licensee failed to respond to FCC inquiries (the FCC having asked for information about the apparent foreign ownership and received no response).
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Earlier this year, there was a settlement window for mutually exclusive applications in the FCC’s application window for new FM translators for Class A and B AM stations. The FCC yesterday released a list of the applications that are now grantable as a result of conflict resolutions filed during that settlement window. These applicants must

Only three weeks ago, we wrote about an application for experimental authority filed by an AM station operator in Arizona, seeking permission to cease operating its AM station for a one year test to operate solely with its paired FM translator. We suggested that this proposal portended much for the AM band. However, the