public inspection file

The FCC’s main studio rules require that broadcast stations have a main studio open during normal business hours.  And, when the studio is open, it obviously needs to be manned so that someone is there to meet any visitors who my show up.  And, sometimes, those visitors are from the FCC.  When the FCC shows up, one would think that station employees would go out of their way to greet the inspectors and provide them what they want.  But in two cases decided this week, that simply didn’t seem to be the case, resulting in two notices of apparent liability proposing $10,000 fines.

One case involved a cable system (which also has a public file obligation and a duty to make the file available during normal business hours), whose employees allegedly asked FCC inspectors to return the next day when a supervisory employee would be present.  In a broadcast case, the FCC inspectors found an apparently unmanned building at what was supposed to be the station’s studio site and, when a woman arrived who was apparently the wife of the owner, rather than letting the inspectors in to the building, she told them they would have to call her husband – who did not answer his phone.  In responding to an FCC letter about the inspection that suggested that there was a violation, the licensee said that the inspectors erred by not ringing the door bell, and that employees come and go as they are needed, but are usually there during the day.  After getting that response, the FCC inspectors returned to the station to conduct another inspection, and found no doorbell, and an office that was again empty.  Obviously, these are preliminary findings of liability, and the facts and law, upon further examination, may prove to be different than what the FCC set out.  But broadcasters should take note of the FCC’s actions. 


Continue Reading When the FCC Comes Knocking, Answer the Door! – $10,000 Fines for Unattended Main Studios

In the last few days, the FCC proposed three fines – all involving violations of the public inspection file rule, and all amounting to $10,000.  But the facts of the three cases are radically different, and one wonders about why all ended up with the same fine.  But more importantly, the cases again raise the issue of why the penalty for public file violations is so high in relation to other fines for what would seemingly be more important issues – ones involving interference to other stations and, potentially, public safety.  We’ve raised the question before as to whether public file violations, which have a $10,000 base fine adopted in the FCC’s Forfeiture Policy Statement (which includes a schedule of base fines for various different types of violations), is really appropriate given the lower fines for what would seem to be more crucial issues – like stations operating in some way that is technically different than they are licensed, or where they don’t have operating EAS systems that can pass along crucial emergency information – offenses with lower suggested fines. Looking at the facts in each of this week’s cases show that, even among public file offenses, the fine may be the same, yet the offenses seem very different.

In one case, an FCC inspection discovered an AM/FM combination operating with a tower with some of its required lights that did not work, an EAS system that wasn’t working and which had not been working apparently for years, an FM station that was operating overpower, and a single public file for the two stations, one that was lacking any Quarterly Issues Programs lists.  With all of these violations over 2 stations, the FCC could have fined these stations as much as $42,000, but the FCC reduced the fine to $10,000 based on the licensee’s demonstrated inability to pay the higher fine.  But more interesting for this analysis was the comparative cost of each of the violations.  Under the FCC’s analysis, the public file violation was worth $10,000, while the base fine for the EAS violation was only $8000, and the fine for the tower lights was the same as that for the missing documents in the public file.  The overpower operation drew only a $4000 fine.  Why is a public file violation, which probably no one ever asked to see, a violation with a penalty as severe as those for matters that could affect public safety – tower lights and EAS?  And why is it more than double the fine for overpower operation, which could cause interference – an issue as the heart of the FCC’s reason for being?  


Continue Reading Three $10,000 FCC Broadcast Fines, All Involving the Public File, Show Differences in Enforcement

While the FCC is entertaining comments on its proposal to move the public inspection file for broadcast television stations online (see our article here), the existing physical public files of several New York area broadcasters came under examination by the New York Times, according to an article in Sunday’s paper. The article seemed to both make fun of the contents of the required public file, while at the same time noting that the people at several stations contacted by the reporter seemed to be unaware of the Commission’s requirements that the file be made available immediately to anyone who visits a station and asks to see it, and that requiring appointments is not an option. We’ve written in the past about stations that received substantial fines for requiring a visitor to make an appointment to see a station’s files (see, one case where a commercial TV station was fined $10,000, and another where a noncommercial FM was fined $8000 for a similar violation).  If the NY Times article is accurate, stations need to reexamine their policies and be sure that those dealing with the public know of the location of the file and the fact that it must be made available upon request – no questions asked. For more information about the public file requirements, see our Guide to the Basics of the Public Inspection File for Commercial Stationshere.

The second aspect of the report, poking some fun at some of the weird comments from the public found in the file, reinforces some of what I have been told by broadcasters. At a broadcaster meeting last week, I was told stories of station public files that have expanded exponentially since the FCC added a requirement that the file contain emails from the public, as well as letters. Broadcasters report that the letters from the public can now often take up several drawers of a file cabinet, while the remainder of the file fits in a single drawer. While the Commission has tentatively concluded that these letters would not be required to be included in the electronic online file, the recent rulemaking proposal did suggest that the letters be retained at the station, and that perhaps summaries of the written comments be made part of the online file. In addition, comments were requested as to whether social media posts about station operations be kept in some fashion – even though sites like Facebook and Twitter, by their very nature, keep most of what it posted on their sites for the public to view (see our summary of the proposals here). Broadcasters at my meeting last week were very concerned about the volume of paper that would generate, and the need for manpower to review Twitter feeds and Facebook posts almost around the clock to see if any needed to be placed into the file as they related to the station operations.


Continue Reading What the NY Times Article on the Broadcast Public Inspection File Says About the FCC’s Public File Requirements

If a broadcaster is looking to maximize the fine that they receive for FCC violations, one would be hard pressed to pick three violations more likely to draw the ire of the FCC than those that were found after a field inspection of a North Carolina AM station, leading to a Notice of Apparent Liability proposing to fine the station $25,000.  The inspection found a tower site with an unlocked fence (a fence which was also observed to be in disrepair) around areas of high RF radiation, and no evidence of either an EAS receiver or a public file at the station’s main studio.  In the FCC’s estimation, that public file violation was the most serious, warranting a $10,000 fine.  Those pesky violations that could lead to actual harm to real people if someone wandered onto the tower site or if an emergency message did not reach its intended audience – drew fines of $7000 (for the unlocked fence) and $8000 (for the missing EAS receiver). 

A number of excuses were provided by the licensee, and rejected by the Commission.  The fact that subsequent remedial actions were taken did not reduce the severity of the violations found during the inspection.  An excuse offered after the inspection, that the studio was in the process of being moved to another location at the time of the inspection, meaning that the public file and EAS system were in transit, was also rejected – as the move was not mentioned to the FCC inspectors as a reason for the violation at the time of the inspection, and as the fact was that the station was in violation at the time of the inspection – during normal business hours, no public file or EAS equipment was at what was then the main studio.  The fact that no EAS outage were noted on any station log was also taken into account by the FCC.


Continue Reading $25,000 Fine for Unlocked Tower Fence and Missing EAS Receiver and Public File

As an FCC Forfeiture Order issued today proves, even noncommercial educational college radio stations need to comply with FCC rules to avoid big fines.  The Commission confirmed a $10,000 forfeiture against Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire originally proposed in 2007.  The college argued that the forfeiture should be reduced based on the station’s noncommercial educational status, but

The FCC has continued this week on its recent tear of fining broadcast stations and other regulated entities for violations of FCC rules – in the last week proposing fines or reaching consent decrees relating to issues including incomplete public filesEAS violations, unauthorized transfers of FM translators, and tower lighting issues, among others.  But a fine issued to a station a few weeks ago merits further review as it provides some more clarity as to what the FCC requires from a broadcast station’s "main studio."  In this recent case, the FCC proposed a $21,000 fine to this broadcaster who allegedly did not have an adequate main studio or public file, and for operating its AM station after sunset with its daytime facilities.

What do the FCC main studio rules require?  Currently, all full-power broadcasters (including Class A TV stations, with the limited exception of satellite television stations and some noncommercial radio satellite stations who may operate with main studio waivers) must maintain a studio either within its city of license, or at another site either within 25 miles of its city of license or within the city-grade contour of any station licensed to the same city of license as the station.  As set out in Section 73.1125 of the FCC rules, no matter where the studio is located, local residents must be able to reach the station by a toll-free telephone call.  The rule, however, does not specifically state what must be at the main studio – those rules are either found elsewhere in the FCC rules or have been developed by caselaw.


Continue Reading What Do The FCC Main Studio Rules Require? – Recent $21,000 Fine Offers Some Clarification

In several recent cases, the FCC issued big fines to stations that had significant gaps in their public inspection files – fines of between $10,000 and $14,000.  Unlike many other recent public inspection file fines, these fines did not arise from self-reporting of violations in a license renewal application, nor were they discovered as a result of a complaint from a disgruntled listener or competitor.  These fines also did not arise in connection with the discovery of other violations at the stations.  Instead, these fines were the result of FCC inspections – inspections that seemingly did not turn up other significant violations.  Thus, these cases serve as a warning that broadcasters need to ensure that their file is complete and up-to-date at all times.  Curiously, these large fines come at the same time that the FCC is about to consider comments on whether the public file paperwork burden is justifiable.

These fines were large – demonstrating a seeming trend to ever-higher fines for public file violations.  The $14,000 fine issued today went to a Class A TV station that had no quarterly programs issues lists in its public file for the entire license renewal term – 34 reports were missing at the time of the inspection.  Based on this egregious violation, the FCC decided that an increase over the base $10,000 fine was in order.  Two AM stations, which had pretty much the same violation as the Class A station – no QPIs for the same period of time – received $10,000 fines (see decisions here and here).  A third AM station received a $10,000 fine for having no new information in its public file since 2006.


Continue Reading FCC Fines Of $10,000 to $14,000 for Broadcast Public File Violations – Discovered By FCC Inspections

Last week, in a frenzy of cleaning up issues left from old license renewal applications, the FCC upheld several $9000 fines for public file violations – most in connection with the failure of licensees to have a complete set of Quarterly Programs Issues lists ("QPIs") in those files.  The broadcasters who were fined came up with a variety of arguments as to why those fines should be reduced or eliminated – which were uniformly rejected by the Commission.  What we find interesting is that, while these large fines were levied against a number of broadcasters, the FCC is at the same time asking whether retention of the public file can be justified under the provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act.  So which is it – an important tool to keep the public informed about the ways that stations serve their public, or an unreasonable burden on those who are regulated by the FCC?

While this request for comments on the paperwork burden imposed by the public file may be nothing more than a routine review of Commission rules to justify their continuing existence under the provisions of the Paperwork Reduction Act, it is interesting that this rule – long the source of wrath from broadcasters who complain that the file is never visited except by the occasional college broadcasting student who has to do so as a class project, or by the competitor in the market looking for something to complain about (and even those visits are extremely rare for most stations) – is now up for review and comment.  Why was this rule selected for review?  Will there be other rules about which the FCC asks for comment?  Is there any justification for the burden imposed on broadcasters (which the FCC estimates at a cumulative 1,831,706 hours of work annually, but to which it curiously assigns no associated cost burden with the required tasks) when it is routine for the file to be never visited?  You have your chance to voice your comments – with the filing deadline for such comments being June 17, 2011.


Continue Reading Fines of $9000 for Public File Violations Upheld, But FCC Asks if the Paperwork Burden of the Public File is Justified

The FCC today issued fines of as much as $12,000 for public file violations.  Together with the fine issued earlier this week for a station that did not allow unrestricted access to its public file, these actions make clear how seriously the FCC takes the obligations of broadcast stations to maintain and make available their public inspection files.  The fines issued today went to both commercial and noncommercial stations, with two noncommercial stations each receiving fines of $8000 for not having complete public files.  Violations are expensive – even if your station is owned by a noncommercial entity.

The largest fine, $12,000, went to a commercial station that, when inspected by FCC Field Inspectors in March 2010, could not produce anything in its public file more recent than 2006.  While the licensee claimed that the documents were kept at the office of the station owner several hundred miles away, the FCC found that the violation of having nothing from more than 3 years of operation was so egregious that an upward adjustment from the standard $10,000 public file fine was warranted.  The two fines issued to noncommercial stations were not as egregious, but still resulted in significant fines.  A review of the details of those cases are instructive as to the excuses and mitigating circumstance that the FCC rejected when the licensees tried to argue for a significant reduction or elimination of the fine.  


Continue Reading Big FCC Fines for Public File Violations for Commercial and Noncommercial Stations

The FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture today, proposing a $10,000 fine against a public TV station in Los Angeles for requiring an appointment to view the station’s public inspection file. This case shows how seriously the FCC takes the requirement of open and unfettered access to a broadcast station’s public file.  An FCC agent visited the station’s main studio twice without identifying himself as an FCC employee.  Both times, the station’s security guard refused to let him see the station’s public inspection file or speak with the station manager without an appointment.

On the third visit, the FCC agent identified himself as such and was allowed to view the station’s public inspection file "after a thorough examination of the agent’s badge and several phone calls to [station] personnel." 

The public inspection file was found to be complete. However, the station was fined $10,000 for "willfully and repeatedly" failing to make the public inspection file available.  The FCC stressed that "stations cannot require members of the public to make appointments to access a station’s public inspection file."


Continue Reading FCC Fines TV Station $10,000 for Requring Appointment to View Public Inspection File