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You Can’t File That Renewal Too Early, Or Can You?

During the last license renewal cycle, the FCC handed out an unprecedented number of fines to broadcasters who failed to file their license renewal applications on time. In some cases, a station only learned of its failure to file because the FCC sent it a letter notifying it that the FCC had deleted the station’s call sign from the official records and that the station’s operating authority had been terminated. For a broadcaster, that can ruin your whole day.

Such letters usually lead to an immediate call to the station’s counsel to try and fix the problem before the station’s business, goodwill, and call sign are lost permanently. The associated fines and legal costs to try to resuscitate the station’s license provide further incentive to avoid placing yourself in this situation. Because of this, it is no wonder that some broadcasters are anxious to get their license renewal applications on file well in advance of their filing deadline.

There is, however, such as thing as being too early. The FCC has already returned at least four license renewal applications because they were filed too early. Some were radio broadcasters whose stations are licensed to communities in DC, Maryland, Virginia or West Virginia. They are required to file their applications by June 1st, and are the first to use the new version of the renewal form, which the FCC announced it would begin accepting on May 2. At least one of these stations has already refiled its application, this time waiting for the May 2nd official opening of renewal season.

These stations are not alone, however, with numerous other broadcasters also having filed prematurely. Among these early filers are low power television stations whose renewal applications are not due for a year or more from now. Because many FCC compliance obligations are connected to a station’s license renewal cycle, a station that is off on its renewal filing date by such a margin that its application is filed in the wrong year likely has numerous other FCC issues that need to be examined and addressed.

Compounding the danger is the FCC database’s admonition that it does not generate an automatic dismissal letter notifying the applicant that its renewal application has been dismissed. As a result, these early filers may believe they have discharged their license renewal filing obligations only to later find out that their authority to operate has been terminated.

The window within which a station can file a compliant license renewal application is actually quite small. For most stations in the full power services, as well as LPFM stations, the FCC’s rules require that four pre-filing announcements be aired on specific dates and in specific time periods alerting the public that the station will be filing a license renewal application. Once the application is filed, six more announcements must air noting that the application has been filed, again on a prescribed time schedule. Because the last of the pre-filing announcements must air on the 16th (with the license renewal application due on the 1st of the following month), stations that file before that date will be airing an inaccurate public notice. In addition, the EEO portion of the license renewal application, which is submitted separately using FCC Form 396, requires that all but the smallest stations attach their two most recent annual EEO Public Inspection File reports to the filing. However, the FCC’s EEO rule requires that each annual report cover a time period ending no earlier than 10 days before the anniversary of that station’s license renewal filing deadline. A station can’t comply with that requirement if it files its renewal materials before that 10 day period commences.

Therefore, while May 2nd, 2011 has now passed and renewal season has officially begun, stations filing more than a week or two before their license renewal application deadline are likely creating a potential problem for themselves. This goes double for the 396 EEO form. So far in 2011, more than 70 of these forms have been filed at the FCC by stations whose licenses are nowhere near ready for a license renewal review. To avoid this, stations need to familiarize themselves with the license renewal filing and notice dates applicable to them, and not simply mimic what stations in other states or services are doing.

To give that effort a little boost, you can look at our latest post regarding license renewals, which addresses the upcoming license renewal compliance deadlines (beginning June 1) for radio stations in North Carolina and South Carolina. If you are not a radio station licensee in North or South Carolina, don’t worry, your time is coming. When it does, make sure you are ready early; just not too early.