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Big Radio Companies Settle With FCC on Online Political Files

Six corporate owners promise to do better

It seems that some of America’s largest and most prominent radio companies didn’t do a very good job at managing their political files until recently.

Six of them — owning almost 1,900 radio stations combined — have agreed to settlements with the Federal Communications Commission. They are iHeartMedia, Cumulus Media, Entercom, Salem Media Group, Beasley Media and Alpha Media.

The outcome feels like something of a “group slap on the wrist,” one that nevertheless seems to carry an FCC warning — or call it a reminder — to the industry.

The six companies agreed to adopt best practices and put compliance systems in place; no financial penalty is involved. The FCC noted sympathetically that radio companies are in the midst of a challenging pandemic and business environment; but it pointed out that it had opted not to pursue “civil penalties” where it could have.

The settlements

At issue are the rules that require U.S. radio stations to keep track of certain information and make it available for public inspection. That includes requests for purchase of broadcast time from candidates for office and from “issue advertisers.” Stations are supposed to upload the information to their online political files “as soon as possible.”

The FCC said it’s crucial that political files are complete and up to date, in part because the information affects, among other things, the statutory rights of opposing candidates to request equal opportunities.

The texts of the six settlements are largely the same, with the FCC noting that each company had voluntarily informed the commission in February that many of their stations had not uploaded the records. Informal discussions at that time led each company to promise to do better and to conduct a compliance report over an immediate test period of several weeks.

In each case, the FCC said that the companies had gotten their act together, showing “significant” or “dramatic” improvement in complying with their political file obligations.

That led the FCC to end the investigation. The companies admit violating the political file obligations, they’ll implement compliance plans and they’ll submit periodic compliance reports.

The commission noted that the pandemic “has placed the radio broadcast industry as a whole under significant financial stress from a dramatic reduction in advertising revenues,” and that the companies’ voluntary disclosure and cooperation, combined with these “exceptional circumstances,” led it to settle.

But it made clear it was giving the companies a break. Sample language: “It is in express consideration of these unique conditions that the Bureau, in the exercise of its prosecutorial discretion, forbears from including a civil penalty on the basis of [a company’s] noncompliance during their license terms as an element of the Bureau’s agreement to enter this Consent Decree.”

The investigation also is one that probably was  a lot easier to conduct than it would have been five years ago, before the new online political file process existed. Reviewing the files is presumably far easier for FCC staff now.