Believe it or not, the date by which all radio stations must have their complete public files online is now less than six months away. Television stations have been dealing with this reality for several years now, as have large stations in large markets for the past couple of years. Now, every radio station, both commercial and noncommercial, must have its complete public file posted on the Commission’s website by March 1, 2018. This posting must include all previously prepared documents still required to be in the public file, with the sole exception of the political file, which may be uploaded on a going-forward basis only.
The obvious big change here is that online posting will make each station’s public inspection file available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Now, anyone with a little time on their hands can scrutinize both the content of documents in the file and the timeliness of their filing. Television stations have already experienced the more thorough review the FCC staff can do at license renewal time, and the same approach is likely to be applied to both radio and TV stations in the next renewal cycle.
Thus, a station’s quarterly issues/programs lists have taken on a new importance, as they can no longer hide, safely unread, in a paper public file. While the political portion of the public file often attracts attention, particularly among competing candidates, issues/programs lists are less noticed and may even be overlooked at times. Still, those quarterly reports are a required element of the public file, and the FCC staff continues to view them as quite important to demonstrating a record of public service. In fact, the Commission has emphasized that issues/programs lists are the primary means by which a station may establish a sufficient record of serving the public interest to support grant of a license renewal.
Of course, these requirements are nothing new. Stations should have been routinely preparing quarterly reports, placing them in the appropriate public file, and retaining there all reports required since the grant of the station’s last license renewal. Still, we have found that some broadcasters could use a little refresher on at least some aspects of the rule related to issues/programs lists. Accordingly, the following is designed to be a primer to cover all the basics you need to know.
Beginning with basic timing, all broadcast stations must place issues/programs lists in their local public inspection file four times a year. The lists must be filed by January 10, April 10, July 10, and October 10, and must cover the issue-oriented programming broadcast by a station during the preceding quarter. Thus, the pertinent three-month periods are: January through March, April through June, July through September and October through December.
Keep in mind that the quarterly list is not merely illustrative, but must include details about programs which have provided a station’s most significant treatment of issues a licensee believes to be of community concern (more on what applies here later). While licensees are not required to maintain comprehensive (i.e., all inclusive) quarterly lists, programs included in the list will be considered a station’s best and most significant issue-responsive programming. Conversely, excluded programs will simply be unknown. It, therefore, makes sense to include as many programs as possible in order to minimize vulnerability to programming challenges.
Let’s walk you through how this process all works.To begin, as a general rule, a station should start by identifying the most significant issues facing its community during the three months covered by the report. While there is no specific number of issues which must be included in each list, the Commission has indicated that significant programming responsive to five to ten community issues will usually be sufficient. In choosing what issues to include, remember that each station is licensed to a serve a specific community. Accordingly, it is important that issues include those directly relevant to the community of license.
Issues of significance to other communities within a station’s service area also should be included. The more local the issues, the better, and the issues chosen need not have significance outside the community of license or the station’s service area. On the other hand, some more widespread issues may arouse local concern as well, and regional or national issues may be included when appropriate. Some issues are almost universally applicable. The key question is whether or not the particular issue is one which has aroused the interest of local residents. For example, a debate about whether a new elementary school should be built is an issue that might be of intense interest to a particular community, while the high cost of college education is an issue likely to be of concern almost everywhere.
As you decide what programming to list in the quarterly report, please remember that the FCC attaches special weight to locally produced programs which are broadcast at times when they could reasonably be expected to be heard by a significant number of listeners. Accordingly, the lists should feature any such programs broadcast by the station. Do not limit yourself to only local programming, however. Programs produced for regional or national audiences may also include significant coverage of matters that are important to your community.
The timing of the broadcasts also is a consideration. It is, of course, tempting to schedule programming not likely to be a fan favorite during “graveyard” hours, when there is not much audience to lose. The problem with that approach is that there are few people who will receive the benefit of the programming. The trick is to find a happy medium for the broadcast schedule, along with programming that will retain at least some audience members.
Please also keep in mind that while PSA’s may address a particular issue or provide valuable information, they are generally not enough by themselves. After all, it is difficult to provide much significant treatment of any subject in 30 seconds or less. Likewise, the Commission has noted in the past that brief news blurbs do not really address any issue, although longer and more analytical news pieces may do so. As noted above, the purpose of the quarterly reports is to provide a list of programs which provided significant treatment of community issues, and the content of the report should reflect that purpose.
No matter what programs you choose to list, certain information about each of them must be reported. A description of a particular program must include the title, date and time of broadcast, duration, and a summary of the program’s content, as well as an indication of the issue addressed. Some details of the program should be included, such as identification of the host and any guests appearing on the program, whether the show was, e.g., a call-in program featuring a public official, a station editorial, or a series of PSAs.
In order to facilitate the preparation of the issues/programs lists, a station should keep a running record of all the issue-responsive programs it broadcasts. Also, even though structured, formal ascertainment is a thing of the past, some kind of systematic procedures should be in place to ensure that a station remains in touch with its community. For example, station management personnel may contact community leaders on a regular basis, with some contacts accomplished every month, and maintain records that document those contacts.
On-air interviews of community leaders would be one method of keeping in touch, as would participation in community events, lunches with leaders of civic organizations, and the like. Records of such efforts should not be placed in the public inspection file, but should be retained in the station’s private files.
Upon request, Fletcher, Heald, and Hildreth can provide you an illustrative example of a proper format for the issues/programs lists, and answer any questions you may have as to this important requirement. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us.
Lastly, the next quarterly issues/programs list for your station(s) is for the Quarter ending September 30, 2017, and must be placed in your public inspection file by October 10, 2017.