With the whirl of the holiday season upon us, most broadcasters rightly thought they could put off looking ahead to the next license renewal cycle until 2019. Au contraire, says the FCC, which began sending out blast emails to certain radio licensees on December 6, warning that FCC internal audits have revealed that many stations’ online public files (OPIF) are not up to snuff.

Thanks to the Commission’s shift in recent years to requiring maintenance of radio and TV stations’ public inspection files on an FCC-hosted online system, the upcoming license renewal cycle is poised to be fraught with potential pitfalls for broadcasters. One can argue that the FCC is actually doing these stations a favor by pointing out problems now, while you still have time to fix them.

Broadcast license renewal season is just around the corner. License renewal applications for radio broadcast licensees in DC, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia are due in the second quarter of 2019. Other state groupings of radio stations will file in two-month waves thereafter for the next four years. TV broadcast license renewals get underway in 2020. With the roll-out of the OPIF over the last few years, the vast majority of TV stations and all radio stations filed their last license renewal applications before the online public file rules were in effect.

Now, you might ask yourself: what difference will the online public file requirements make to a license renewal application? It’s true that a license renewal application has long required a licensee to certify compliance with the FCC’s public file rules, and a false certification on a renewal application has always been subject to penalties, including fines, short-term renewals, or even, in extreme circumstances, designation for hearing for license revocation. The difference going forward is the ease with which Commission staff can audit a licensee’s public file, as evidenced by the emails streaming out from the FCC staff.

In the past, if a licensee mistakenly or carelessly neglected to maintain its public file, there was little chance FCC staff, or even the licensee’s attorney, would be able to review the public file because doing so required traveling to the station’s main studio and manually searching paper documents. With online public files, Commission staff can now review any licensee’s public file at any time, on a computer in their office, at home, or in their local coffee shop.  When your renewal is filed, FCC staff will be able to (and are very likely to) affirmatively review your online public file to ensure that it contains the appropriate documents, and that they were filed in a timely manner.  Any shortcomings may result in sanctions for the public file violations themselves as well as for any inaccurate certifications included in the renewal application regarding those files.

Because of the increased scrutiny, and the potentially severe consequences, we advise our clients to take extra precautions to ensure compliance with public file rules. Broadcast licensees should carefully review their public file(s) and consult their attorney to ensure every “t” is crossed and every “I” dotted. The level of detail needed in an OPIF review cannot be stressed enough. For example, when looking at a station’s issues-programs lists, we might ask, just to start, the following:

Did you upload and maintain in the correct folder in the OPIF your issues-programs reports for each quarter since the last renewal was granted? If yes, were they timely (by the 10th of the month following the quarter)? Does each report contain the detailed information required by the FCC rules?

And that is just one of many items in the OPIF that must be reviewed.

Broadcasters who received an email from the FCC regarding their public file must respond to the email and give a general idea of when they expect to get right with the rules. Others who didn’t receive such an email should nevertheless take a look to make sure everything is ship-shape, and make sure internal processes for ongoing uploads are squared away for the coming years.  If a licensee discovers a problem with its public file, it is especially important to check with  experienced FCC counsel to ensure your online public file is in tip-top shape!

The first round of radio license renewals must be filed by June 3, 2019, with pre-filing announcements beginning in April. Be sure to check back here at CommLawBlog for updates and developments as we head into the license renewal season.