The state-by-state license renewal cycle for radio stations that will take place over the next three years commenced on April 1, 2019. That was when the first batch of radio broadcasters (DC, MD, VA, and WV) began airing their pre-filing announcements ahead of the June 1, 2019 filing date for their license renewal applications. The cycle then repeats, with a license renewal application deadline (based on state) occurring on the first day of every other month until 2022, by which time all full power, FM translator, and LPFM stations should have filed applications seeking a new eight-year license term. Stations can determine their license renewal date by reviewing the FCC’s state-by-state license renewal timeline.
The FCC’s license renewal application form (FCC Form 2100, Schedule 303-S) may at first appear straightforward, consisting mostly of yes/no questions. However, appearances can be deceiving, as evidenced by the countless fines, consent decrees, and other enforcement actions levied against stations that either failed to verify the accuracy of their certifications before filing, failed to timely file their license renewal application, or whose failure to comply with the FCC’s rules over their eight-year license term became apparent at license renewal time.
Those risks have increased significantly in this license renewal cycle, as it will be the first one in which all broadcast station Public Inspection Files are online. The ability of the FCC, petitioners, and anyone else to review a station’s Public Inspection File online, at any time of day or night, and to peruse the electronic time stamps indicating exactly when documents were uploaded, creates a regulatory minefield for any applicant that has not been fastidious in preparing for its license renewal and in completing its license renewal application.
The bulk of the license renewal application consists of certifications whereby the applicant confirms its compliance with various FCC rules and requirements. If an applicant certifies it has complied with those rules and requirements, and that assertion is not contested by a petitioner or the FCC’s own records, the FCC will generally not request additional evidence of compliance and will grant the station’s license renewal application. Where the application is challenged by a petitioner with evidence that one or more of the station’s certifications is false, the FCC may ask the applicant for additional information to determine if grant of the license renewal application will serve the public interest.
One of the certifications that carries the highest risk of generating a fine is the certification that the station has timely placed all required documents in its Public Inspection File. The base fine for a Public Inspection File violation is $10,000, and the FCC can adjust that amount upward if it finds multiple or egregious violations have occurred.
That means a station whose online Public Inspection File is not complete is already subject to a sizable fine. Falsely certifying compliance in the license renewal application creates the risk of additional fines, and in extreme cases, may persuade the FCC that license renewal is simply not in the public interest.
As a result, before completing the license renewal application, stations should thoroughly review their Public Inspection File to ensure it is complete and that the time stamps indicate all documents were timely uploaded. If the Public Inspection File is not complete, stations should upload the missing documents as quickly as possible and be prepared to disclose that fact in their license renewal application. With the Public Inspection File now online, it is easy for the FCC or a petitioner to challenge the accuracy of a station’s license renewal certifications—quite different from the days when a broadcast employee might reach retirement age without ever encountering a Public Inspection File visitor. It is therefore even more important to a station’s well-being during this renewal cycle to fix any problems spotted as promptly as possible rather than just pretending those problems don’t exist when certifying rule compliance in the license renewal application.
The License Renewal Process
The first point to note is that a license renewal application is just that—an application—and not a guarantee of a new license term. The Communications Act of 1934, as amended (the “Act”) requires all radio broadcasters to obtain from the FCC an authorization to operate. By filing Schedule 303-S, an applicant requests its authorization be extended for another eight years. The Act requires the FCC to grant such an application only if it finds that during the preceding license term: (1) the station has served the public interest, convenience, and necessity; (2) the licensee has not committed any serious violations; and (3) there have been no other violations by the licensee of the FCC’s rules and regulations which, taken together, would constitute a pattern of abuse. To this end, the FCC invites petitions to deny, informal objections, and comments from the public for every license renewal application, and will review the application and these other submissions to make a determination as to whether the station at issue is deserving of license renewal. Continue reading →