Commercial broadcasters soon will not need to keep paper copies of viewer and listener correspondence about station operations in their public inspection files. The FCC voted 3-0 on Tuesday to eliminate the requirements at its first public meeting under new Chairman Ajit Pai. The Order also resolves a security issue for stations because they will no longer be required to keep their main studio open for anyone who walks in off the street who asks to see the public file, which will now be entirely available online.
The eliminated rules, which stem from 1973, also required cable operators to maintain and allow the public to inspect the location of each cable system’s principal headend; that’s going away as well, though operators must still provide principal headend location information to the FCC, broadcasters and franchisors upon request.
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at the meeting she met with four broadcast owners at the NAB/RAB Radio Show in the fall and asked about the issue; they told her hardly anyone ever asks to see the public file.
Chairman Pai said when he visited KKOW(FM), Pittsburg, Kansas, a station he listened to growing up, personnel “laughed” when asked how often people ask to see the files that were maintained in “huge” file cabinets with paperwork going back several years. “But they didn’t laugh about the burden of maintaining” the file with the station’s small staff, he said.
Pai characterized the Order as “taking a few steps towards modernizing our rules” and said that it will allow stations like KKOW “to send those clunky file cabinets packing.”
The rules were the last remaining hold-over from when broadcasters were required to maintain paper public inspection files. Television owners began migrating their station public files online in 2012 and completed the move in July 2014; The Commission expanded the move from paper to online public files for radio, cable and satellite operators in January 2016 (although the roll-out of the new requirements will not be complete until 2018). Due to privacy concerns, however, correspondence from the public could not be posted online, and as a result, broadcasters had to continue to maintain a “hard-copy” file at the main studios.
The public file requirements abolished Tuesday will not officially go away until the changes are approved by the Office of Management and Budget. Once the revised rules are in effect, viewers and listeners will still be able to contact their stations, by phone and online; those contacts just won’t be included in the stations’ public files. Viewers and listeners can also file petitions or objections to a station’s performance at license renewal time.