Operating a college radio station can be a fun learning experience where budding broadcasters have the opportunity to cut their teeth before entering major media markets. With opportunity, however, comes responsibility.
Maintaining a broadcast facility requires paperwork – a lot of it. Failure to keep up with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requirements can lead to steep fines, sometimes as much as $10,000. In recent years, college stations have been cited on multiple occasions for violating two FCC record-keeping requirements: Failing to maintain an adequate public file, and failure to timely renew the station’s license.
This legal guide will explain these two FCC requirements, and how station operators can minimize their risk of a costly fine.
When an educational broadcast licensee, which is generally the university’s board of directors or university itself, 1 seeks to renew its broadcast license, the station must submit FCC Form 303-S. 2 Section III, Item 3 of that form asks the applicant to certify that the station has kept a “public file” at the station during the previous license term.
A public file is a list of documents that every broadcast television and radio station must keep on-hand and available for public inspection during regular business hours. 3 Failure to follow the FCC’s public file rules may result in a fine – which the Commission calls a “forfeiture order.” 4
In 2009, WEAX(FM), which was licensed to Tri-State University in Angola, Indiana, was ordered to pay $9,000 after admitting that the station did not maintain all of the information that the FCC requires to be in a public file. 5 The FCC did not find it relevant whether anyone had ever attempted to inspect the file, stating that failure to maintain the required documents “diminishes the public’s ability to determine and comment on whether the station is serving the community.” 6
Moreover, the penalty levied was not reduced because WEAX was a noncommercial, educational station that would have a hard time paying an FCC fine. When determining how much to fine a broadcast station for FCC violations, the Commission will only consider the finances of the licensee, which is normally the university, and not the finances of the station. 7 It would be difficult for a university to claim that a four-figure fine would cause undue financial hardship, even if it is clear that any fine will be taken directly out of the broadcast station’s operations budget.
Additionally, when assessing forfeiture orders, the FCC will not take mercy on a station because it is noncommercial. It is the FCC’s policy that “there is no proposed forfeiture exemption or reduction based on the noncommercial status of a station.” 8 (On occasion, it is possible to obtain some forgiveness if the station’s record is clear of violations, as with WEAX, which was able to get its penalty reduced to $7,200.)
With unforgiving penalties awaiting the station that is not to keep a public file, it is important to know exactly what documents an educational radio or TV station must have on hand. The FCC’s public file rules are embodied in FCC rules 73.3526 9 for commercial stations and 73.352710 for noncommercial educational stations. These rules do not apply to Low Power FM and Low Power television stations. The FCC offers a brief description of a station’s responsibilities on its website, 11 but a general explanation of what a noncommercial educational station must keep in its public file follows:
What must be in the public file?
Where must the public file be located?
When must a copy of the public file be accessible to the public?
Before a radio or television station can begin broadcasting, it must first obtain an operating frequency from the FCC. A station cannot “purchase” an operating frequency from the FCC, but rather must lease, or license, it for a set period of time. Generally, stations are licensed a broadcast frequency for renewable two-year periods. 14
A broadcast station can renew its license by filing the appropriate paperwork with the FCC. 15 However, an application to renew a broadcast license must be submitted four months prior to a license’s expiration.16 Failure to apply for a license renewal will result in possible fines by the FCC, even if the mistake was unintentional or came as a result of a clerical error. 17 The FCC requires this four-month period in order to give the community an opportunity to comment on the station’s service and, if warranted, oppose the station’s renewal application. 18
Colby Community College, which operates the FM radio station KTCC, failed to submit a license renewal application four months before the station’s license was set to expire. 19 In letters to the FCC, the station’s radio broadcasting instructor noted that the oversight was the result of his “predecessor’s failure to document the license renewal process, as well as his own unfamiliarity with the [license renewal] process.” Given the personnel turnover that is sometime’s common with educational broadcast operations, and the lack of training that personnel sometimes receive prior to taking over a broadcast facility, KTCC’s explanation was not unique. 20
Although KTCC’s operators did not know they had to file a renewal application four months prior to their license’s expiration, the Commission still found the station’s actions to be a “willful” violation of FCC rules. The FCC stated that rules violations “resulting from inadvertent error or failure to become familiar with the FCC’s requirements are willful violations,” even if they were not purposeful. The FCC has stated that “the term ’willful’ means that the violator knew that it was taking (or in this case, not taking) the action in question, irrespective of any intent to violate the Rules.” 21
Failing to renew a broadcast license will result in that station’s license lapsing. When a broadcast facility continues to operate on a frequency without a license from the FCC, it is operating an unauthorized station, which is a violation of FCC rules and will result in further fines. 22
If a station has not submitted its renewal application form four months prior to license expiration, the station can apply for Special Temporary Authority to broadcast on its frequency even after the license expires. During this time period, the Commission will consider the station’s renewal application and the community’s comments about the station. Special Temporary Authority will not, however, excuse a station from a fine for violating the FCC’s four-month renewal time period.
The FCC will grant a station special temporary authority “for a period of 180 days, but the applicant must show that extraordinary circumstances warrant such an extension.” 23 Requests should be filed electronically using FCC Form 601 Main Form, specifying the purpose as “Renewal/Modification.” Once Special Temporary Authority has been granted, a station may operate until the FCC has made a final decision regarding the license renewal application or the authority expires.
Reminders for Operating a Broadcast Facility:
While these requirements can at times appear bureaucratic and picky, the Commission takes them seriously, and a careless oversight can put a station’s survival at risk. A good source of information and advice for those uncertain about FCC compliance requirements is the nonprofit organization College Broadcasters, Inc., and its website, www.askcbi.org.