By Gregg Skall
MBA FCC Counsel
Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice
The FCC may be acting like the “one-to-many” broadcasting model is old hat, but it has not let up on keeping broadcasting the most regulated of industries under its roof.
Every broadcast licensee must place their issues and programs list in their public file on a quarterly basis every January 10, April 10, July 10, and October 10. The list must be comprised of “programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues” during the preceding three months. So, this January list will include community issues programs presented during October, November and December of 2015.
The list must be maintained in the station’s local public file together with all others for the remainder of the license renewal period. The last radio station renewals were filed in April of 2014, so depending on the state of license that will be for another five to eight years together with all lists since the last renewal grant.
More than ever, it is especially important to make sure this is done timely and well, with sufficient documentation. TheFCC has proposed to expand the online public file obligation to radio as well as television. (click here) That will expose your issues/programs lists to watch-dog groups from around the nation, indeed from around the world, such as the Sunlight Foundation that that filed complaints against eleven television stations last May based on information obtained from their online political public file.
Remember that while the Commission has ruled that the list is to contain all of the most significant programs the licensee has aired to address the listed issues, it has not defined the term “most significant programs.” The best way to protect your station is to prepare a comprehensive and accurate list of community issues the station has covered in the last quarter that were given the most significant treatment and the programs in which they aired with a brief narrative explaining why those issues were chosen, a narrative description of the programming that addressed the issue, the program’s title, duration, and time and date of airing.
The Commission has frequently stated that its public interest standard is based on community-responsive performance. It is not the number of issues covered, but the quality of coverage the Commission will look to. In composing your list, therefore, emphasis should be placed on a good description of the issue and the depth of coverage or discussion devoted to it.
Remember too that the Commission gives broadcasters broad discretion to determine what constitutes an important issue to their communities. The term “issue” has been sweepingly defined by the Commission as “[a] point of discussion, debate, or dispute, * * * [a] matter of wide public concern.” In choosing issues to focus on, actual programming of other licensees in the community may be taken into account and it’s not necessary for a specific station to address every important issue in your community.
Consider a situation where one station’s program format might be attractive to senior citizens while another station in the same market that does program for that audience might address issues of concern to them. Let them have that issue and address other issues important to your audience.
Another hint: While the Commission has done away with its formal ascertainment requirements, continuing to meet with community leaders and documenting those meetings can support your determinations of issues of importance to the community. Should the station’s license renewal be challenged, management’s efforts at community ascertainment will be one of the key factors favoring a “Renewal Expectancy.”
This column is provided for general information purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice pertaining to any specific factual situation. Legal decisions should be made only after proper consultation with a legal professional of your choosing