Commission looks to “refresh the record” in 10-year old proceeding, seeks comments on MMTC “designated hitter” proposal

The FCC is thinking about further tweaking its broadcast Emergency Alert System (EAS) to assure non-English speaking audience members access to emergency information.

The proposal is an offshoot of a more comprehensive set of proposals submitted by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) and several other public interest groups back in 2005. (Yes, that’s 2005 – nearly a decade ago. More on that below.) Last December, some MMTC reps met with folks at the Commission to try to move things along. In the course of that meeting MMTC emphasized that it believes that broadcasters should be required to “work together”, along with “state and market counterparts”, to identify each party’s “responsibility based on likely contingencies”. Accountability – which MMTC characterized as “awareness of the plan/responsibilities” – would be “encouraged” by requiring broadcasters to “certify or explain their role in such a plan” in their renewal applications.

In an ex parte memo describing the December meeting, MMTC explained that its plan

could include a designated hitter approach to identify which stations would step in to broadcast multilingual information if the original non-English speaking station was knocked off air in the wake of a disaster. . . . One market plan might spell out the procedures by which non-English broadcasters can get physical access to another station’s facilities to alert the non-English speaking community – e.g. where to pick up the key to the station, who has access to the microphones, how often multilingual information will be aired, and what constitutes best efforts to contact the non-English broadcasters during and after an emergency if personnel are unable to travel to the designated hitter station.

(We left out a footnote; you can read the whole thing at the link above.)

Now the Commission has invited everybody’s thoughts on the “designated hitter” approach.

While the FCC doesn’t expressly indicate that it’s inclined to embrace the approach, it sure doesn’t reject it out of hand. Au contraire, the questions posed in the public notice reflects an interest in kicking the tires and looking under the hood.

It wants to know whether any such “designated hitter” programs are already in place and, if so, how they’re working. And if such a program were to be mandated by the FCC, what provisions would be appropriate: Should it be applied only in states which already have at least one licensed station that serves particular non-English speaking audiences, or rather when a state has a non-English speaking population of a certain size (and if the latter, what size population should trigger it)? Or maybe it should apply only in states that are “more susceptible to certain types of events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes or earthquakes”. Obviously, there are plenty of options here.

The Commission acknowledges that broadcasters have in the past expressed concern that a foreign language EAS requirement along these lines would force them to hire folks fluent in one or more foreign languages. In response, the FCC points to MMTC’s suggestion that the “designated hitter” stations could “simply allow access to the employees of the downed non-English station”, who would then be responsible for the non-English announcements.

It’s more than a little surprising that the Commission might be interested in such an unorthodox approach. When, after all, was the last time that the FCC suggested that a licensee might want to leave the keys to the station under the welcome mat (or in that fake rock out in the parking lot) so that some non-station announcers can take over for a while?

Of course, assuring that everybody gets the word in the event of an emergency is an extremely important task. Desperate times may call for desperate measures.

In any event, the FCC wants to know what you think. You can upload comments electronically at the FCC’s ECFS online filing site, using Proceeding Number 04-296. Deadlines for comments and reply comments haven’t been set yet – check back here for updates.

Before we sign off on this, though, we are constrained to observe that this proceeding was opened in 2004 – 10 years ago – and that MMTC’s original proposals were filed in 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina caused havoc along the Gulf Coast. MMTC has been dogged in its efforts to get the Commission to take action. Its December, 2013 meeting with the Commission’s staff was but the latest example of that doggedness.

In its public notice inviting comments, the FCC says that it’s looking to “refresh the record” in the 10-year-old docket. But “refreshing” wouldn’t be necessary if the Commission had, at some point in the last decade, taken action. We understand that the FCC has a lot on its plate and all, but really, 10 years to resolve a matter of obvious public safety?

Ideally, however this proceeding gets resolved, it will get resolved soon, and without the need for any further refreshing.