Public radio outlets ask FCC for pass on online public files

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Some public radio stations are asking the FCC for total exemption from maintaining online public files, arguing that the commission’s proposed two-year delay for enforcing the requirement is insufficient given their limited resources.

The comments from pubcasters are in response to an FCC initiative intended to make key station records more easily accessed by the public. Under existing FCC rules, all commercial and noncommercial broadcasters are required to maintain publicly available files that disclose a variety of information about their operations, including their ownership.

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

The FCC began phasing in a requirement three years ago that all commercial and noncommercial TV stations switch from keeping hard-copy records at their station headquarters to posting their public files online.

Now the FCC is proposing to extend the online posting requirements to other media, including radio, cable and satellite TV.

To ease the way for radio, the agency late last year proposed a phased-in approach under which commercial radio stations with five or more full-time employees in the top 50 Nielsen radio markets would be required to start posting their public station records online first. The online obligation for other noncommercial and commercial stations would be delayed for two years.

But some pubcasters have asked the agency to drop the online posting obligation for NCE stations altogether. NPR urged the FCC to exempt all noncommercial radio stations from any obligation to switch to online public filing, while at the same time clearing the way for any pubcasters that want to make the switch to do so on their own timelines.

Some noncommercial radio stations, according to NPR’s filing, have made clear that they want to switch to online reporting in the interests of promoting transparency, while other stations view online filing “as a less costly and administratively easier task compared to maintaining paper-based public files.”

“That said, the cost of adapting to online filing will be unduly burdensome for some NCE radio stations,” NPR continued.

In a joint filing, Native Public Media and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters also endorsed allowing pubcasters who want to switch to online reporting to do so on their own schedules.

NPM, which represents Native American media organizations, and NFCB also recommended an indefinite postponement of any online filing requirement for NCE stations and commercial stations with fewer than five full-time employees.

“For some stations, it might be easier to post to their public files online,” said John Crigler, a communications attorney with the law firm Garvey Schubert Barer, who represents NPM and NFCB. “But just because some people do it doesn’t mean every station should have to. If it’s easy as the FCC says it is, sooner or later everybody will want to do it.”

Also throwing its weight behind an exemption for NCE stations is the National Association of Broadcasters, the major lobbying representative for commercial broadcasters.

“NAB supports a permanent exemption to any mandatory online public file requirement for non-commercial educational stations, as well as all commercial stations with fewer than five full-time employees,” NAB said in its FCC comments.

“Imposing additional administrative obligations on NCE stations would divert their limited (and frequently listener provided) financial and other resources away from their primary mission, contrary to the public interest,” NAB said.

One university argued that college stations may be particularly inconvenienced by an FCC requirement to post files online. “Many student-run NCE [noncommercial educational] stations already lack a robust online presence due to limited resources, and requiring these stations to maintain an online public file would mean diverting scarce funds away from programming and teaching in order to ensure regulatory compliance,” said Colorado State University, licensee of student-run KTSC-FM in Pueblo, in its FCC filing.

Meanwhile, representatives of key public-interest groups are urging the FCC to limit any blanket exemption to noncommercial stations with fewer than five employees.

“The smallest NCE stations may truly lack the resources to upload their public files online,” said the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation in a joint filing.

“Our clients would not oppose an exemption for non-commercial stations with fewer than five full-time employees because they may lack the resources for online filing,” said Eric Null, an attorney for the organizations.

In their joint comments, NPM and NFCB also asked the FCC to drop station program donor lists from any online filing requirement in the interest of protecting donor privacy. The Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation have not taken a position on exempting program lists, according to Null.

An FCC spokesperson declined comment on when commissioners will vote on the final regulations. Crigler said he expected a decision by early next year.

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