EEO wide dissemination

The FCC yesterday released another of its regular EEO audit notices (available here), asking that approximately 80 radio stations, and the employment units with which they are associated, provide to the FCC (by posting the information in their online public inspection file) their last two year’s EEO Annual Public File reports, as well as backing data to show that the station in fact did everything that was required under the FCC rules. Audited stations must provide copies of notices sent to employment outreach sources about each full-time vacancy at the stations as well as documentation of the supplemental efforts that all station employment units with 5 or more full-time employees are required to perform (whether or not they had job openings in any year). These non-vacancy specific outreach efforts are designed to educate the community about broadcast employment positions and to train employees for more senior roles in broadcasting. Stations must also provide, in response to the audit, information about how they self-assessed the performance of their EEO program. Stations that are listed in the audit notice have until July 29, 2019 to upload this information into their online public file.

The FCC has promised to randomly audit 5% of all broadcast stations each year. As the response (and the audit letter itself) must be uploaded to the public file, it can be reviewed not only by the FCC, but also by anyone else with an internet connection anywhere, at any time.  The license renewal cycle which just began adds to the importance of this audit, as a broadcaster does not want a recent compliance issue to headline the record the FCC will be reviewing with its license renewal (see our article here about the upcoming license renewal cycle). So this is a good time for broadcasters to review what is required by the FCC’s EEO rules.
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A Notice of Apparent Liability released yesterday shows that the FCC is still enforcing its EEO rules even though those rules have been somewhat relaxed to reflect modern recruiting practices. As we wrote here, the FCC now allows a station to recruit to fill employment vacancies solely by using online sources. But, as we warned here, that does not mean that a station can ignore its obligations to document its EEO efforts and to otherwise observe all of the obligations set out in the EEO rules. In yesterday’s action, the FCC’s Media Bureau proposes a $20,000 fine for a license operating a 5-station cluster in South Carolina that allegedly did not keep good EEO records and, when subject to a random EEO audit, was unable to identify any recruitment sources for other than word-of-mouth recruiting for 6 of 11 hires over a two-year period. For several positions, the licensee was said to not even be able to provide information about any recruitment sources that were used by the station.

The FCC requires stations to use sources other than its existing employees to recruit to fill full-time vacant positions. Using simply word-of mouth recruiting is considered to be recruiting through the “old-boys network” that the FCC’s EEO rules are designed to overcome, so this violation alone was enough for the FCC to have concerns. But, according to the FCC’s Notice, that was not the only deficiency in the licensee’s paperwork.
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The FCC recently issued a declaratory ruling (which we summarized here) addressing the requirement that broadcasters widely disseminate information about all of their job openings in such a way as to reach all of the groups within their communities. The recent FCC decision stated that a broadcaster can now rely solely on online sources to meet the wide dissemination obligation. In the past, the sole reliance on online sources would have brought a fine from the FCC, so this is a big change for broadcasters – one which recognizes the realities in the world today as to where people actually go to find information about job openings .

This decision does not end all other EEO obligations imposed by the FCC rules. The Indiana Broadcasters Association recently asked me 5 questions about that new decision to highlight some of the other obligations that still arise under the FCC’s EEO rules. Here is that discussion of the continuing obligations under the EEO rules:

  1.  The FCC recently issued a Declaratory Ruling about how Job Openings should be posted.  What’s changing?

The FCC is now permitting broadcasters (and cable companies) to meet their obligation to widely disseminate information about their job openings solely through the use of online recruitment sources. In the past, broadcasters were fined if they did not, in addition to online sources, use recruitment sources such as community groups, employment agencies, educational institutions and newspapers to solicit candidates for virtually all open positions at any station. Under the FCC’s new ruling, a broadcaster can use online recruitment sources as their sole means of meeting their obligation to widely disseminate information about job openings, as long as the broadcaster reasonably believes that the online source or sources that it uses are sufficient to reach members of the diverse groups represented in its community.
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The FCC on Friday released a declaratory ruling making it significantly easier for broadcasters and MVPDs to meet their EEO obligations imposed by FCC rules.  These rules for broadcasters and MVPDs (cable and satellite TV providers) requires that these businesses, when filling job openings, widely disseminate information about the openings in a manner that is expected to reach members of all community groups in the area from which employees are likely to be found.  In the past, under the rules adopted in 2002, the Commission has not allowed recruitment to be conducted solely through online sources.  Instead, the 2002 order suggested that the daily newspaper would, in many communities, be an outlet that would reach the diverse groups within a community – though most broadcasters supplemented newspaper publication with notifications to numerous schools, community organizations, educational institutions and others who might possibly refer employee candidates.  Stations that relied solely on online sources faced substantial fines from the FCC (see the cases we summarized here and here).

The decision on Friday recognized that we are in a different world than when these rules were adopted almost 15 years ago.  Now, most recruiting is done online.  Thus, in response to a petition I filed on behalf of clients (summarized here), the FCC determined that a broadcaster or MVPD can rely solely on online sources in its recruiting.  It no longer needs to use the newspaper, reach out to community groups community groups or even use its own airwaves to give notice of job openings to satisfy the wide dissemination obligation.  The FCC encouraged stations to continue to use some of these outreach methods, but it is no longer required.  The broadcaster or MVPD needs to be reasonable in picking online sources that are likely to reach the members of various groups within its community – though the decision as to exactly which online employment sources to use will be left to the good-faith discretion of the broadcaster or MVPD.  The Commission went so far as to say that, depending on the circumstances, a single online source could reasonably be found to be sufficient.
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In the swirl of news about the deregulatory efforts of the new FCC, one could almost forget that there are still many regulations in place that require significant amounts of paperwork retention by broadcasters. That point was hammered home yesterday, when the FCC released its first EEO audit letter of 2017 for radio and TV broadcasters. The FCC’s public notice announcing the commencement of the audit includes the audit letter that was sent to all of the targeted stations.  The list of over 200 radio stations subject to the audit is here. The list of almost 80 TV stations is here. Responses are due March 28, 2017. As employment information for all stations within a named station’s “employment unit” must be provided in response to the audit, the reach of this notice goes far beyond the 300 stations targeted in the audit notices. While the FCC is considering a proposal to allow online recruiting sources to suffice to meet a broadcaster’s wide dissemination requirements (as we wrote here), that proposal is still at an early stage and, as this audit notice evidences, the underlying rules remain in place.

The FCC reminds stations that were targeted by the audit to put a copy of the audit letter in their public file. The response, too, must go into the file. For all the TV stations hit by the audit letter, and those radio stations that have already converted to the online public file, that will mean that the audit letter and response go into that FCC-hosted online public file.

The Commission has pledged to randomly audit 5% of all broadcast stations and cable systems each year to assure their compliance with the Commission’s EEO rules – including the requirements for wide dissemination of information about job openings and non-vacancy specific supplemental efforts to educate a station’s community about job opportunities in the media industry.  We recently summarized FCC EEO issues here, reminding broadcasters of the possibility of being audited.  The FCC also has the opportunity to audit larger broadcasters’ EEO performance when they file their FCC EEO Mid-Term Report. We also wrote about the start of the obligations for the filing of FCC Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Reports – which started the year before last for radio groups with more than 11 full-time employees and last year for TV licensees with 5 or more full-time employees in a few months, and are filed on the 4th anniversary of the filing deadline for the station’s license renewal – which will give the FCC another chance to review station EEO performance.  
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The FCC on Tuesday voted to abolish the 44 year old requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain, in their public file, letters (and emails) from the public dealing with station operations (see the full Order here). As noted by the Commissioners in their comments at the FCC meeting (and as we suggested here and here when this proposal was first introduced), these documents were rarely if ever accessed by the public. Mirroring our comments from last year, the Commission noted that, in today’s world, where social media is where so many people take to comment on each broadcaster’s every action, and where the comments are open to all and preserved for posterity, the requirement for the retention of letters in a paper public file was felt to be no longer necessary. Plus, with the rest of the public file either already online or soon to go online when the last radio stations convert to the FCC-mandated online public file next year (see our articles here and here), the elimination of this requirement allows stations to have more security at the main studios as people can’t just show up unannounced to view the file, as required under the current rules.  Note that this will change the rules only for commercial stations – noncommercial stations have never had the obligation to include letters from the public in their public inspection files.

Much of this was expected in light of the new deregulatory bent of the Commission. About the only issue that had not previously been highlighted was the associated elimination of the requirement for TV stations that they report letters from the public about violent programming in their license renewal applications. The statute requiring the disclosure of these letters applied only to letters which the FCC rules required to be retained by the station. As the FCC will no longer require those letters be retained, the FCC found that the need to report letters about violent programming was now moot – and instructed the Media Bureau to delete the requirement from the license renewal forms. Because the reporting requirement lacked any real purpose, since the FCC has never sanctioned a broadcaster for violent programming and likely has no jurisdiction to restrict such programming, the abolition seems to be nothing more than the elimination of an unnecessary paperwork burden on broadcasters.
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