FCC Expands Online Public File Obligations to Radio Stations

The FCC has issued a Report and Order adopting new rules that require radio stations to post most of the documents in their public inspection file to a central FCC-hosted online database rather than maintaining paper files locally at their main studios. In adopting online public file rules for radio stations, the Commission largely followed the approach it took in 2012 for television station online public files.

The new rules that apply to radio stations will go into effect in phases. The new rules must be approved by the Office of Management and Budget and published in the Federal Register. Once the rules become effective (the “Effective Date”), radio stations in the top 50 Nielsen Audio markets with five or more full-time employees will be required to upload new public and political file documents to their station’s online file. Applications, ownership reports, and certain other documents filed with the FCC will automatically be linked to the online file and will not need to be uploaded by stations. In addition, these stations will have six months from the Effective Date to complete the process of uploading their existing public file documents. However, materials in the political file as of the Effective Date will not need to be placed in the online file. All noncommercial educational radio broadcast stations, commercial radio broadcast stations in the top 50 markets with fewer than five full-time employees in an employment unit, and all commercial radio broadcast stations in the markets below the top 50 markets will have until March 1, 2018 to comply with the rules. We will distribute an alert once the Effective Date is determined.

Below is a summary of the new rules as set forth in the Commission’s Order:

General Online Public File Rules

  • With the exception of letters and emails from the public (which stations must keep and make available for inspection at the main studio, as discussed below) and applications, ownership reports, and documents otherwise electronically filed with the FCC, stations will be required to upload to the online file all documents that are currently required to be maintained in the public inspection file.
  • The Commission will import and update documents electronically filed in CDBS (or LMS) into each station’s online public file, including: authorizations, applications and related materials, ownership reports and related materials, contour maps, EEO materials, The Public and Broadcasting manual, non-confidential letters of inquiry and investigative information requests from the Commission.
  • Stations must also include their main studio address and telephone number, and the email address of the station’s designated contact for public file questions in their online file.
  • If a station’s main studio is located outside its community of license, the station’s online file must list the address where the correspondence file and existing political file are located, and the required local or toll-free telephone number parties may use to contact the station.

The Political File

  • Beginning on the Effective Date, stations in the top 50 Nielsen Audio markets with 5 or more full-time employees in an employment unit must begin to post the contents of their political files online on a going-forward basis.
  • All other radio stations will be exempt from the online political file requirement until March 1, 2018. However, each such station must continue to maintain a physical political file at its main studio. These stations may voluntarily transition to the online file before that March 1, 2018; however, entities that choose to do so must then upload all new public and political file documents to the online file on a going-forward basis.
  • The obligations regarding political file contents will be prospective only. No radio station will be required to upload the contents of its existing paper political file to the online site.
  • Stations will be required to maintain a local electronic backup of the political file. The FCC will provide a tool to allow stations to make electronic copies of their online political file from the Commission-hosted site. If the FCC’s online file becomes inaccessible, stations must provide any information pertaining to the political file to candidates, their representatives, other political time buyers, and any member of the public.

Donor Lists

  • Noncommercial radio broadcasters will be required to upload their lists of donors supporting specific programming.
  • To the extent a licensee fears that online disclosure of donor information with respect to particular programs could discourage a donor from making contributions to the station or subject donors to unwanted attention or crime, the licensee may seek a waiver of the online posting requirement.

Letters and Emails from the Public

  • Radio broadcasters will not be required to upload letters and emails from the public to the online public file. Instead, those items must be kept in a correspondence file at the main studio. The Commission also clarified that stations are not required to retain comments posted on social media sites already accessible to the public, such as Facebook, in their correspondence file.

FCC Form 302-AM

  • AM stations that must retain Form 302-AM (which is not filed electronically) in their public inspection file may choose to either retain the form locally for public inspection or upload the form to the Commission’s online database.

Other Public File Contents

  • When a station begins uploading material to the online file, it will no longer need to post a copy of its most recent EEO public file report to its website. Instead, stations can provide a link to the EEO materials in their online public file to satisfy this requirement.
  • The FCC stated that the Media Bureau will create contour maps for purposes of the online file for both AM and FM stations.

Format, Layout, and Orderliness of the Online File

  • The online rules do not require that documents be uploaded in any particular format, but do require that any electronic documents be uploaded in their existing format to the extent feasible. In addition, the FCC expects that stations will upload documents in a searchable format, if technically feasible. For documents uploaded in a non-searchable format, the Commission will use optical character recognition software to allow the public file to be searched.
  • The FCC also reminded licensees that the online public file, just like the paper file, must be kept in an orderly manner, noting that broadcasters should remove documents from their public files – both online and paper – in a timely manner to prevent them from becoming overwhelmed with out-of-date documents.
  • In the event the FCC’s online file is inaccessible, stations must maintain any relevant documents and upload them once access is restored.

Information to be Included on Station Websites

  • Stations with websites will be required to include a link from their homepage to their online public file.
  • These stations must also include on their website homepage contact information for a station representative that can assist any person with disabilities with issues related to accessing the content of the public file.

If you have any questions regarding the FCC’s new online public file rules or public file requirements in general, please contact any attorney in our office.

Categories: Media