Public radio organizations weigh in on FCC public file proposal

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A proposal to require noncommercial radio stations to disclose program funders and share other public file records online has prompted widely varying reactions among public and religious broadcasters.

In filings with the FCC, Native Public Media, an association representing tribal media organizations, warned that the change would be too burdensome and could lead to the demise of some of its radio stations. American Public Media Group — the largest owner of public radio stations in the U.S. — welcomed greater standards of transparency. Meanwhile, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters staked out a middle ground, proposing an exemption for stations with small staffs.

Another major player among noncommercial radio broadcasters, Educational Media Foundation, objected to online disclosure of its stations’ program donors, as did Native Public Media.

The FCC’s Media Bureau opened a comment window in August, seeking response to a petition from a coalition of watchdog groups pushing for greater transparency from media companies. The window was a preliminary inquiry, gathering feedback before the commission decides whether to proceed with a rulemaking.

Under existing FCC rules, all broadcasters, commercial and noncommercial alike, are required to maintain publicly accessible files that disclose a variety of information about their operations, such as details about their ownership and descriptions of the public service programs they present to their communities.

Commercial stations must also include information about political advertising sales in their public files. For noncommercial broadcasters, lists of donors supporting each program must be maintained in the public record for two years after the program airs.

In an effort to make these records more accessible to the public, the FCC began phasing in an online public file regime two years ago for all commercial and noncommercial TV stations.

TV broadcasters now upload records to the agency’s database, and pubTV stations have no concerns with the requirements, according to Stacey Karp, spokesperson for the Association of Public Television Stations.

“The FCC rules reasonably addressed any issues stations had, such as when the rules became effective, so our stations were comfortable with the final rules,” Karp said.

The commission completed full implementation of the online filing system in July, according to its Aug. 7 public notice.

Now public interest groups are pressing to expand the online records rules to other media providers, including cable, satellite TV and commercial and noncommercial radio stations.

Strain on fragile stations

In its letter to the FCC, Native Public Media asked the commission to exempt its stations, which often provide the only broadcast service to isolated and economically disadvantaged Native communities.

“An online filing requirement may for some existing Native NCE radio stations, already struggling with limited technical and staff resources, become the difference between continuing to operate and being forced to go silent,” said NPM in its August 28 filing. Some Native stations lack broadband access to upload the files, it said.

NPM described the proposed rule as “more properly focused on cable and [direct broadcast satellite] operators” and urged the commission to exempt all NCE radio stations. “[T]he burden on the often limited human and technical resources available to NCE radio stations far outweigh any resulting public benefit,” NPM said.

The Association of Minnesota Public Educational Radio Stations, a group that represents small community stations in the state, asked the FCC not to require NCE stations to post files online due to the “severe financial and staffing hardship” it would impose. If the FCC decides otherwise, AMPERS said, it should allow stations to maintain online files in place of physical files, “as it would be redundant and require even more staff hours to maintain both.”

APMG, which operates Minnesota Public Radio’s statewide network, Classical South Florida and KPCC in Pasadena, Calif., endorsed the online filing proposal in a separate letter to the FCC.

“Enabling the public to access this information of media organizations would promote more public trust in media — something that is sorely lacking today,” the group said in an August 19 letter.

NFCB, representing the interests of volunteer-powered community radio and minority-controlled stations, offered two counter-proposals. It suggested that the commission extend the online reporting requirements only to commercial radio stations. Or, if the FCC opts to include noncommercial radio stations in an eventual rulemaking, NFCB urged the agency to exempt stations with five or fewer employees.

“The majority of our member stations operate with a staff of five or less,” said NFCB, in an August 26 letter. “Requiring them to post the public file online and maintain a hard copy public file creates a significant burden on organizations that are already doing too much with fewer resources.”

Identifying funders

In urging the FCC to drop program funder lists from its proposed online disclosure requirements, NPM described the burden of additional regulations.

“Any effort by the commission to include radio stations, and particularly NCE stations serving Native communities, would be premature and would divert already severely limited resources away from their core mission of serving their communities,” the letter said.

EMF, which told the FCC it holds licenses for more than 300 NCE stations, cited the threat posed to its stations’ contributors in urging the agency to drop the requirement for online disclosure of program funders.

“One can almost imagine how such donors could become the target of unscrupulous individuals trolling the Internet for the names of unsuspecting donors,” EMF said in its letter. “This information, while available in a station’s physical file, is much more likely to be the subject of abuse if it is broadly disseminated on the Internet. Thus, the commission should think carefully as to whether this information should be required to be posted online, as the commission does not want to give NCE donors any reason to be hesitant about supporting noncommercial radio.”

APMG favors disclosure and full access to donor information. “The APM Group is very proud of our track record of unbiased news reporting,” the pubcaster said in its letter. “We are also proud of our track record of transparency and openness to the public—including transparency around those that provide financial support to APMG.”

The key watchdog groups promoting online disclosure weighed in with a Sept. 8 letter responding to the initial round of comments. The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation said they could support an exemption from online disclosure rules for noncommercial radio stations with five or fewer employees “because the smallest NCE stations may truly lack the resources to upload their public files online.”

The groups also expressed support for a proposal to waive an online filing requirement when a station that can show “it is not physically capable of uploading the documents” online or the “station’s situation is such that online filing truly imposes a heavy burden.”

“Given, however, the relative efficiencies of online filing, the burden for proving the latter waiver request should be high,” the groups said.

Pubcasters’ objections to online disclosure are a “perfectly normal” reaction, Andrew Schwartzman, an attorney for the watchdog groups, told Current.

“They just think it’s a burden,” Schwartzman said. “Nobody likes more scrutiny of what they do. . . . But they are licensees of the FCC.”

Before moving to adopt the requirements, the FCC would first issue a formal rulemaking proposal seeking another round of comments. “There is no specific time frame for further action,” an FCC spokesperson said.