Noncommercial Broadcasting

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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Last week, the Copyright Royalty Board announced its calculations for whether there would be a cost of living increase in the 2019 rates that Internet radio stations pay to SoundExchange for the public performance of sound recordings. In its initial release on the subject, the CRB’s announcement indicated that commercial webcasters would continue to pay at the rate of $.0018 per performance (set after a cost of living increase last year – see our post here). But that same notice indicated that the per performance rate would be $.0019 for noncommercial webcasters with substantial listening (i.e., those that stream more than the 159,140 aggregate monthly tuning hours that noncommercial webcasters receive for a $500 yearly payment), causing some concern among noncommercial webcasters as their per performance rates were supposed to be based on what commercial webcasters paid. That notice was revealed to be a typo according to a Federal Register correction published today – keeping the noncommercial rates at $.0018 once the noncommercial webcaster exceeds the initial complement of streaming hours it gets for the $500 yearly minimum payment (see our initial article on that decision here, and one that provided more details here).

While the rates stay the same for 2019, and will stay substantially the same for 2020 (subject only to a cost of living increase, if any), 2019 will begin the CRB proceeding for the setting of webcaster’s SoundExchange royalty rates for 2021-2026. The CRB sets rates in 5 year increments. But the proceedings to set those rates normally take two years to complete, so the proceeding to set the rates to be effective in 2021 will begin with interested parties filing petitions to participate in the proceeding following a CRB invitation to file, likely to be released at the beginning of 2019. Once parties have filed to participate, the CRB will announce a mandatory 90 day period in which the parties are to try to settle the case. If there is no settlement, the litigation will run through the remainder of 2019 and 2020, with a decision to be issued by the end of 2020.
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The FCC yesterday issued an order granting 39 radio stations (almost all stations with very small staffs or those affected by recent hurricanes or otherwise non-operational) 60 days to comply with the requirement that all full-power radio stations complete the transition to the online public file by this past March 1. We wrote about

Note, for all of you who are trying to complete your Biennial Ownership Reports that are due for commercial and noncommercial stations on March 2 (see our post here about the March 2 filing date), the FCC yesterday posted a notice on the log-in screen for its LMS electronic database, in which the ownership

On a day when the rest of the country is thinking about chocolate and Champagne, many radio stations need to be considering the FCC requirement that their public inspection file be made available online in a system hosted by the FCC. From the calls I have received in the last few days, it appears

On Friday, the Radio Music License Committee issued a press release that states that Global Music Rights (“GMR”), the new performing rights organization that collects royalties for the public performance of songs written by a number of popular songwriters (including Bruce Springsteen, members of the Eagles, Pharrell Williams and others) has agreed to extend their

The FCC’s Audio Division yesterday issued “Notices of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture” to five radio stations; all owned by Cumulus Licensing. Each of these notices proposed a fine (called a “forfeiture” in FCC-speak) of either $10,000 (here) or $12,000 (here, here, here and here), all for violations of the FCC public file rules. All of these stations, located in close proximity in eastern South Carolina, were missing numerous sets of Quarterly Issues Programs lists that should have been included in their public files in the last license renewal term. The stations voluntarily reported that the lists were missing in their license renewal applications filed in 2011. In clearing up these long-pending renewals, the FCC proposed to issue these fines – again emphasizing that even this deregulatory FCC does not hesitate to enforce the rules that remain on the books (see our previous warnings here and here).

The release of these proposed fines also sends a warning to broadcasters about to convert to the online public inspection file (as all radio stations will need to have their public file online by March 1 – see our discussion of the online public file here), that these reports will be able to be viewed by anyone, anywhere, to see if they have been prepared and timely placed into the stations online public file. Each document deposited in the public file is date-stamped as to when it was uploaded. So anyone trying to assess a station’s compliance with the public file rule can see whether the Quarterly Issues Programs list was uploaded to the file and whether the upload was timely – within 10 days of the end of each calendar quarter.
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Noncommercial broadcast stations are licensed to be just that – noncommercial. These stations can run “underwriting announcements” acknowledging commercial businesses that provide financial support to the stations, but such announcements must meet strict guidelines – including restrictions on “calls to action,” prohibitions on statements about prices or discounts, and requirements that no qualitative claim about the sponsor’s products or services can be made. From time to time, the FCC will fine or admonish noncommercial stations that run underwriting announcements that are too commercial. Yesterday, the FCC announced that its Enforcement Bureau had reached a Consent Decree (available here) with a noncommercial broadcaster who acknowledged having run underwriting announcements that had exceeded the bounds set by the rule. To settle the complaints about its announcements at stations in California and Arizona, the licensee agreed to pay the FCC a penalty of $115,000. According to the FCC Press Release on the matter, this was the highest penalty ever imposed on a noncommercial broadcaster for violations of the underwriting rules.

In addition to the fine, the licensee had to agree to a one-year moratorium on underwriting announcements from commercial entities. In addition, the licensee had to institute a compliance plan to educate its employees about the requirements of the FCC rules on underwriting, including a requirement that it create a training manual for use by its staff, and that it appoint a compliance officer to oversee compliance with the underwriting restrictions. For four years, the licensee needs to report to the FCC any instance where they violate the rules, and file a yearly report detailing their efforts to maintain compliance and certifying either that there have not been any violations of the rules or, if such a certification cannot be made, the details of any violations.
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We are already a full month into the New Year, and the regulatory issues for broadcasters keep on coming. February brings the usual requirements for Annual EEO Public File Reports, which should be placed into the public inspection files (those public files being online for TV stations, big clusters of radio stations in Top 50 markets, and for those other radio stations that have converted to the online public file in anticipation of next month’s deadline) of stations in Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, and Oklahoma that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees. Radio stations with 11 or more full-time employees in New Jersey and New York also must file with the FCC a Mid-Term EEO Report on Form 397 by the end of the day today. TV stations with 5 or more full-time employees in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma also must file the Mid-Term Report.

As noted above, March 1 brings the deadline for all radio stations to convert to the online public file hosted by the FCC (see our article here for more details about this requirement). For those radio stations that have not yet completed their conversion, February is the month to be uploading those documents. As the FCC automatically uploads most of the applications and other FCC filings that need to be in the public file, the documents that will likely take the most time for the broadcaster to upload are Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and Annual EEO Public File Reports, documents not filed with the FCC on a regular basis. We have already heard reports that the FCC’s public file system is running slow at certain times of the day, probably because of the strain of so many people uploading documents. We expect that these issues will only get worse as the March 1 deadline approaches. So, if you are a procrastinator, get on this now, as time is getting short.
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