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Another Downside of Downsizing

Like many other FCC license holders, broadcast stations constantly navigate numerous laws and regulations while filing a multitude of reports and applications by required deadlines. Many of these are required quarterly, but some are annual, biennial, quadrennial, or octennial (once every eight years, and the only time I’ll get to use that word this year). While stations are usually very good about completing their quarterly reports, the less frequent reports require a special level of attention or they can be forgotten in the rush of business.

In the past few months, I have noticed a surge in calls from stations wanting to talk to a lawyer because they have belatedly discovered that they failed to create multiple reports over the past few years. I’ve received these types of calls regularly for more than two decades, but the accelerated pace of these calls definitely caught my attention. When a station calls the lawyer in a panic after making this discovery, the lawyer’s first job is to talk them down off the ledge. In the case of small station groups, you are often talking directly to the owner, who is rightly concerned about the direct financial impact of fines and license renewal challenges. With larger groups, it is often a GM worried about his or her future employment if the problem spins out of control. Fortunately, if addressed promptly, the damage can be greatly limited or avoided.

What is interesting, however, is that the common thread in nearly every one of these calls was the downsizing of the station employee “who did all that” before the problem commenced. While the recent “mega-recession” resulted in downsizing in nearly every industry, the precipitous drop in advertising revenues caused tremendous downsizing in the media industry. As downsizing usually requires that one person do the work formerly handled by multiple people, it is not surprising that a report that is required to be filed once a year, or only during odd-numbered years, gets lost in the mix. Of course, the loss of institutional memory is always a problem when an employee departs. However, the problem is intensified in a downsizing, where the departing employee is not too happy with the soon-to-be-former employer, and is probably not feeling very enthusiastic about training their successor.

As a result, while it is always wise to vigilantly monitor regulatory due dates and keep them on a multi-year calendar, it is equally important to ensure after a downsizing that there remains one employee who is clearly charged with ensuring that the required reports/filings are timely completed. You also need to ensure that employee has not just the responsibility of getting the job done, but the training and resources to make it happen. A top-notch conscientious employee who has no idea what an EEO Midterm Report is, and when that particular station’s report is due, is of little use.

Focusing a little bit of attention on that issue now will save you loads of distraction later when you try to undo the damage. Keep in mind that where a missed report may result in a fine, a missed license renewal application (the “once in eight years” filing for broadcasters) has caused the FCC to delete the station from its database and charge the licensee with illegal operation for the time it operated the station after its license expired. It’s best not to find that out firsthand.