In the summer of 2014, CommLawCenter broke the news that the FCC was considering moving radio public inspection files online, following in the footsteps of the FCC’s earlier creation of an online public file requirement for TV stations. Television stations have been required to upload all newly created public file documents to their online public inspection files since August 2012, and to upload public file documents created before that time by February 2013. In adopting the TV online public file requirement, the FCC said that it would serve as something of a “test run” for radio station public inspection files.
Four months later, I wrote here about the FCC’s release of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking calling the TV online public file effort a success, and a “significant achievement in the Commission’s ongoing effort to modernize disclosure procedures to improve access to public file material.” The NPRM proposed moving forward with an online public file for radio stations, as well as for cable, DBS and satellite radio. The FCC acknowledged that the online public file might represent a burden for at least some radio stations and, as a result, proposed to phase in the requirement beginning with stations that are located in the top 50 markets having five or more full-time employees. In addition, the NPRM proposed giving non-commercial educational stations and stations with fewer than five full-time employees two years to make the transition. While the NPRM was not directed at revamping the content of the public file, the Commission did suggest that some types of documents might be exempted to lessen the burden both on stations and on the Commission’s servers.
The NPRM attracted numerous comments, many focused on ensuring that any online public file requirement would contain sufficiently broad exemptions for small radio stations and an adequately long phase-in period for other types of stations to ensure that the requirement would not be unduly burdensome. As a filing on behalf of all 50 state broadcasters associations noted, radio stations tend to have smaller staffs than TV stations, and the norm is to have multiple local radio stations operated jointly, meaning that those smaller staffs need to maintain multiple public inspection files.
After the comments were filed, the proceeding went silent, and many wondered if the FCC had begun to have second thoughts as to whether its servers could handle the substantial increase in traffic that a radio public inspection file requirement would generate. In the past few weeks, however, the FCC let it be known that an order was circulating among the five commissioners for a vote on the online public file NPRM. If there was any doubt where it was headed, that ended today when FCC Chairman Wheeler announced in a blog post that the order being circulated will implement online public inspection files for radio stations. He did not, however, give any hints as to what exemptions or phase-in periods the order might contain.
Broadcasters won’t, however, have to wait long to find out. The FCC also announced today the agenda for its January 28, 2016 Open Meeting, and the radio online public file order is right at the top. As a result, radio stations will soon know what changes 2016 will be bringing to their public files.