The FCC recently announced that it has entered into consent decrees with six large radio broadcasters regarding compliance with political file requirements. These consent decrees show that the FCC is carefully reviewing broadcasters’ online political files to ensure that documents are uploaded in a timely manner, particularly in the context of reviewing renewal applications.
Most of the companies that entered consent decrees voluntarily informed the FCC that many of their stations had not been uploading requests to purchase time from candidates and issue advertisers in a timely manner. This information had also been disclosed in license renewal applications filed by the companies. Specifically, certain stations answered “no” to the question on the renewal application about whether a station has uploaded in a timely manner all information required to be in its online public file, and explained that all of the required materials were in the online file, but some items had not been uploaded in a timely manner.
The Communications Act of 1934, as amended, and the FCC’s online political file rule require stations to include in their online political files, information about each request for the purchase of broadcast time made by a legally qualified candidate or an issue advertiser. Typically, this information is included in a sales order generated by the station or a rep firm and accompanying forms provided by the political advertisers. Under the rules, this information must be uploaded immediately, which the FCC has interpreted to mean within one business day. The FCC said that it is crucial for stations’ political files to be complete so that opposing candidates can review the information when deciding whether to request equal opportunities and how to present their positions to the public. Stations are also required to upload invoices showing when spots aired and the rates charged as soon as they are available. For more information about the FCC’s online political file rules, see our previous memos here and here.
Before the FCC issued the consent decrees, all of the companies voluntarily agreed to adopt uniform operating procedures to comply with the political file timing requirements and to submit a compliance report to the FCC that covered requests for political time their stations received during the last week of February and all of March 2020. Because these reports showed that each of the companies had achieved substantial compliance with the rules, and because of the devastating financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the radio broadcast industry, the FCC did not require any of the companies to pay a civil penalty. Each of the companies agreed to appoint a compliance officer and implement an extensive compliance plan.
These consent decrees signal that the FCC will be carefully reviewing broadcast stations’ online political files during the 2020 election. We recommend that all stations adopt procedures to ensure that orders from candidates and issue advertisers are uploaded to their online files within one business day, and that the orders and accompanying materials include the required information.
If you need additional information about this matter, please contact Sally A. Buckman at 202-416-6762.