Random Radio Thoughts
Online Public Files
Online public inspection files are now the law of the land for television stations. Last month the NAB was unsuccessful in its attempt to get the FCC to reverse that decision. There is still some faint hope that the rule could be changed or dropped, but my feeling is that it’s here and here to stay.
And of course it’s just a matter of time for radio as well. The same arguments that were applied for television also apply to radio. But it’s not here yet, nor is there to my knowledge a rulemaking in process to require online public files for radio.
When the issue came up for television, I gave it some serious thought. In consideration of some of my public file experiences of years past, my early reaction was that this is a good thing.
We have, in years past, had disgruntled employees remove documents from the public file, and we’ve had activists and possibly even plants from the competition come in and look at our public files with some agenda in mind. We have learned from these experiences (and from the Sandy Berger incident a few years ago) that you never, ever, ever allow a member of the public to touch the file, even closely supervised. You never leave that person in the room with the file unsupervised (while going to make a copy or whatever). And you take one person at a time to look at public file documents, even if there is a crowd of 20 in the lobby wanting to see the file.
An online public inspection file would eliminate the risks associated with an in-person encounter for sure. There is no way anyone could “Berger” a document out of the room in his sock and then complain to the FCC that the document is missing from the file. So from a broadcast licensee’s perspective, there really are some positives to maintaining online public files. But I think the risks and downsides outweigh those positives.
Consider for a moment that a number of documents have to be in the file by a certain deadline. For example, quarterly issues/programs lists must be in the file by the tenth of the first month of the subsequent quarter. Do you always and without fail make that deadline? What if the person responsible is out sick? Would anyone else even think about it? The same can be said of ownership reports and other documents.
Consider the case of letters and emails from the public. An activist could easily email the station with a correspondence that should go in the public file and then a few days later check the file to see if the email is there. If it’s not, they could contact the FCC with a complaint and written evidence to back it up. The same could happen with a letter. It would be easy for such a person to make trouble for the station.
And think about political advertising. All that documentation would have to be posted in a very timely manner, and if a station was late getting it scanned and into the file, the candidate could file a complaint. This is a very real risk in the short primary and general election windows.
In terms of enforcement, an online public file would be like hunting in a baited field. FCC EB personnel could generate NOVs without ever leaving their desks. How easy would it be to perform a “sweep” of every station in a district on the tenth of the month, for example, looking for those new issues/programs lists? A licensee’s “sins” would be displayed for all to see.
Finally, scanning all that paperwork to the public file would be a huge pain at the outset and a minor pain going forward. It would require some man-hours to complete and keep up with.
So when that rulemaking eventually comes out, I and my company will oppose it. I don’t think an online public inspection file is such a great idea after all.
Jack Roland has left Salem in Colorado Springs and is now chief engineer for the Rocky Mountain region for EMF Broadcasting (K-Love and AirOne). He started in early July and is already on the road making the rounds of the many EMF transmitter, translator and “satellator” sites in Colorado.
Down in the Springs, Tony Lopez is filling in at the Salem cluster until a full-time replacement for Jack Roland can be located and hired. Anyone interested in that gig should contact Cliff Mikkelson at Salem-Denver.
If you have news to share with the Rocky Mountain radio engineering community, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.