The FCC released the tentative agenda for its May 25 Open Meeting today, and topping the agenda is an item that could lift a burden that has been on the shoulders of commercial broadcasters for half a century. The FCC will vote on adopting a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to eliminate the requirement that commercial broadcast stations retain copies of letters and emails from the public in their public inspection files.
That simple description understates, however, the actual impact the proposed change could have. Letters and emails from the public may have at one time simply been one category of documents among many that broadcasters were required to keep in the public file, but when the FCC started requiring that public files be moved online, it recognized that “including these documents in the online file could risk exposing personally identifiable information and . . . requiring stations to redact such information prior to uploading these documents would be overly burdensome.” As a result, the FCC decided that while it would require broadcasters to upload all other public file documents to the online file, broadcasters would not be permitted to upload letters or emails from the public and instead would have to continue to maintain those documents in the local public file at the station’s main studio.
In the rulemaking proceeding that resulted in the online public file requirement being expanded to radio, we filed comments on behalf of all 50 State Broadcasters Associations questioning the utility of maintaining a physical public file at the station solely to hold letters from the public:
If every part of the file is moved online except Letters from the Public, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever visiting a station solely for the thrill of reading its mail. Still, station personnel must remain eternally vigilant for that one person who might show up to look at what will be the last vestige of a station’s local public file.
Those comments encouraged the FCC to take steps to eliminate the requirement, explaining that “as long as this single requirement effectively forces stations to maintain a local public file regardless of whether they also have an online public file, the burden of maintaining both files will for many small stations be a bridge too far.” Commissioner O’Rielly added his support in a blog post this past September.
The biggest benefit of this change, if adopted, would be to allow stations to cease having to maintain a local “paper” public file and ensure that it is continuously available to the public during regular business hours (including lunchtime). This would not only benefit stations struggling to ensure that there is always a staffer standing by to provide immediate access to the file, but increasingly important, eliminate a major security risk for broadcast stations seeking to prevent dangerous individuals from entering the building, as happened last week in Baltimore.
If the FCC ultimately eliminates the requirement to maintain letters and emails from the public in a local public file, access to the other content in the file will still be available to the public (online), and stations will no longer have to grant access to an individual just because he knows the “open sesame” phrase of American broadcasting: “I’m here to see the public file.”
In a blog post today (All That’s Old is New Again), Chairman Wheeler hinted that this rulemaking is unlikely to see much resistance, stating that elimination of this “outdated public file requirement” would be consistent with the agency’s “process reform initiative to review all Commission regulations and update or repeal outdated and unnecessary rules.” Broadcasters couldn’t agree more.