This story first appeared on GV's sister publication Radio World.
WASHINGTON—The public file has been part of life for radio and TV broadcasters for a long time, but the FCC has made several notable changes in its rules lately.
Frank Montero, managing partner of the law firm Fletcher Heald & Hildreth, will participate in a webinar in October about the public file process, produced by the Colorado Broadcasters Association (see link at bottom). Radio World asked him for an update on the topic.
RADIO WORLD: What’s your top-line message to broadcast owners and managers about the public file?
Frank Montero: Don’t let the relaxation of the FCC public file rules, such as the removal of the public correspondence requirement, cause you to take the obligation lightly. The FCC is cracking down on public file compliance and issuing hefty fines for violations. Moreover, public files must now be online for TV and larger commercial radio stations with five or more employees in the top 50 markets. Noncommercial radio stations with fewer than five full-time employees will have to put their files on line starting in March of 2018.
This means that the FCC no longer needs to send an inspector to your studio anymore. The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau will be able to monitor your public file compliance from the comfort of their computer screens back in Washington, D.C. TV stations found this out when they were applying to participate in the reverse auction.
Remember that at renewal time you will have to certify that your public file is complete and the contents were timely filed, only now there will be an FCC official back in Washington who will be able to confirm, in real time, whether your answer is accurate.
RW: Review that commission timetable by which certain broadcasters would need to be set up online.
Montero: TV stations have had their public files on line since 2012. Radio stations located in the top 50 markets and with five or more full-time employees were required to have their public files online by June of 2016. So they should already be up and running.
All other radio stations, including noncommercial stations, those outside the top 50 markets or those with fewer than five full-time employees must have their public files on line by March 1st of 2018.
RW: What are the questions or concerns that stations have so far?
Montero: The most common questions revolve around the technical aspects of setting up the public file, logging on to the FCC system, and establishing links from the station’s web page. Stations also frequently ask about retention periods of various materials required to be kept in the public file.
However, with the public file now going online, there are actually some stations in a panic asking very basic questions about what needs to be in the public file. I think the process of putting the public file online and making it public is causing many stations to dramatically rethink their internal public file maintenance practices.
RW: For those that have already made the transition, how are their daily operations different?
Montero: I actually think that for those stations that have made the transition to an on line public file, the process is easier.
For one thing, apart from some AM applications still filed on paper, stations no longer have to place filed FCC reports and applications in the public file because that is done automatically. Also, if you have to place the same document into the files of multiple stations across a large geographic region, that can now be done with a single click rather than having to make multiple copies that are sent out to multiple station GMs.
In contrast, you have to appreciate that your public file is now in a fish bowl and observable by anyone who logs in, so an effort has to be made to keep it current. Every station should name a staffer in charge of public file maintenance. It’s like balancing a checkbook, if you maintain it every day it’s easy but if you let it slip over weeks or months, it’s hard to catch up.
RW: How does the whole correspondence file aspect play into this now, what’s left of that?
Montero: Back in January, the FCC voted to do away with the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain in their public inspection files copies of letters and e-mails from the public concerning their stations’ operations. The rule went into effect as of June 29, 2017.
This type of local correspondence had been the only thing broadcasters were still required to maintain in their physical public inspection file (due to privacy concerns, these documents were never included in the online public file). With this elimination of the correspondence requirement, at least for broadcasters who have transitioned to the online public file system, there is no longer any need to maintain a hard copy public file at their main studios (which may themselves not be required for much longer).
RW: What else should managers know?
Montero: I think it’s important for all managers to stay on top of the public file rules because they are fluid. This current administration intends to make significant changes in the FCC’s media rules. Tracking rule changes as they’re reported in Radio World and on blogs like my firm’s CommLawBlog.com is critical.
I think we can expect more changes in the future. Aside from keeping abreast of rule changes, I recommend conducting your own audit or self-inspection of what’s in the public file and removing those documents that no longer have to be there. Remember that a radio license renewal cycle will be coming up between 2019 and 2022 and stations will have to certify that their public files are current and that all material was timely filed. So now would be a good time to start doing an audit of those files in preparation for your FCC license renewal.
Frank Montero and Steve Lovelady of Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth will conduct a webinar for the Colorado Broadcasters Association on Oct. 12 covering online public file requirements and procedures for radio stations subject to the March 2018 deadline. It will be archived afterwards. Learn more at www.coloradobroadcasters.org/.