Has it been eight years already?  It’s hard to believe, but yes – the license renewal cycle for radio stations is about to start over again, with preparatory on-air announcements already in progress.  The TV cycle will start next year.

In a Public Notice released today, The Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC” or the “Commission”) Media Bureau announced revisions to the application process for this latest radio license renewal cycle.

For those who are unfamiliar with the process, the FCC renews broadcast radio and television station licenses for eight-year terms (with a few rare exceptions).  So, current license holders must file a separate application for each station every eight years requesting a license renewal and pay the required filing fee.  (Holders of all noncommercial educational licenses, including all Low Power FM stations, and certain entities such as state universities and other governmental units, are exempt from paying filing fees.)

Assuming that a license renewal application is in order, and there are no pending complaints against the licensee or objections from the public, the FCC will typically grant the renewal applications for another eight-year term right before the current license term expires.  Even if the grant of a renewal application is delayed beyond the expiration of the current license term, a statute ensures that a licensee may legally continue to broadcast on its station unless and until the renewal is actually denied.

In order to spread out the workload for the FCC’s staff processing renewal applications, the FCC has staggered radio and TV license terms.  So, for certain states and groups of geographically nearby states, the licenses for all radio stations expire on the same date.  For example, the first group of licenses set to expire on October 1, 2019 includes all broadcast radio stations (AM, FM, FM translator and Low-Power FM) located in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia.  The next group of radio licenses is in North Carolina and South Carolina, with licenses expiring on December 1, 2019.  The process continues for other states and groups of states on a meandering path around the country.

Not sure when your state’s stations’ licenses expire and when your renewal application is due? – check out the handy-dandy table that we prepared here for radio stations.  TV station licenses expire one year later on a similar staggered schedule – click here for the television stations schedule.

What sometimes catches owners off guard is that stations must start the license renewal application process six months before the license’s expiration date.  Here’s the drill:

  • On the first day of the month six-months before the expiration date, start broadcasting mandatory public notices twice per month on the station. For example: if your station is licensed to a community in Maryland and your license expires on October 1, 2019, you should have started your pre-filing announcements on April 1, 2019.
  • No later than the first business day of the fourth month before your license expires, you must file the license renewal application. Again, for example: for a Maryland radio station with a license expiration date of October 1, 2019, the FCC license renewal application must be filed no later than June 3, 2019 (June 1, is a Saturday, so the form is due on the next business day, i.e. June 3).
  • Commencing on the due date for the license application, start broadcasting post-filing notices on the station.

The pre- and post-filing announcements described above must include specific wording required by the FCC’s Rules.  The announcements must be broadcast within specific times and dates also set forth in the FCC’s Rules.  The FCC’s objective is to alert the public of an opportunity to examine the station’s performance during the past 8-year license term, and let the FCC know if anyone thinks the station has not done a good job serving the public’s interests during that period.  Note: stations must keep a written record of the broadcast times and dates of these announcements and upload that record to the station’s public inspection file after the announcements have been completed.  Because the public file is now online, you should expect the FCC to check to see that announcements have been broadcast, the dates and times have been uploaded, and to defer granting renewal for stations that have not properly completed the announcement process.

In addition to their renewal applications, licensees must at the same time file a Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Program Report.  This report details the EEO efforts of the station during the expiring license term and has attached to it the latest two years’ of Annual EEO Reports that stations with five or more full-time employees should be placing in their online public inspection file each year.

Which brings us back around again to today’s Public Notice by the Media Bureau mentioned above: the FCC has announced that it intends to use its relatively new License Management System (LMS) as the exclusive method for filing license renewal applications and EEO reports during the current renewal cycle.  The old online Consolidated Database System (CDBS) will not accept renewal applications.  So, the first set of radio station renewal applications (again—FM, AM, FM translators, and Low-Power FM stations in Maryland, District of Columbia, Virginia and West Virginia) can begin preparing their forms on May 1 using the LMS system.  The due date for that group of applications is June 3, 2019.  A companion Public Notice also issued today by the Media Bureau gives details about using LMS, compared to the old CDBS system used for renewal applications in the last cycle 8 years ago.

The LMS license renewal application form is supposedly 99% the same as the old renewal Form 303-S that was filed in the FCC’s CDBS system; but since the LMS function will not go online until May 1, we have not had a chance to try it out yet.

If you need assistance with the FCC license renewal application process, please contact your communications counsel.