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FCC’s Public File System Experiences Difficulties, Raises Concerns

It's unfortunate timing, as the FCC requires broadcasters to file required political order data as soon as possible

Just as political ad spending is hitting all-time highs — political ad tracking firm AdImpact says preliminary data shows political ad spending hit $2.14 billion in October — the FCC says some radio broadcasters had issues last week uploading their time orders to the commission’s online public inspection file system.

Broadcasters are required to upload political orders in a timely fashion, generally within 24 hours. Failure to comply with the online public inspection requirements may subject stations to monetary penalties and could affect station license renewal, according to the commission.  

A FCC spokesperson acknowledged “there were some issues with uploading documents last week, but that has been resolved.” The problem was “unrelated to the volume of filings.”

Several commission observers theorized that the outage took place during a public file software update; the FCC spokesperson would not confirm that. 

The Michigan Association of Broadcasters issued an advisory for its members late last week, relaying information provided to the group by its general counsel, David Oxenford, a communications attorney with Wilkinson Barker Knauer LLP. 

MAB Washington Counsel David Oxenford has told the MAB … the FCC experienced difficulties with its online public inspection file system and the ability of stations to upload files to the site. This may be of particular concern to broadcasters given the requirement for timely uploads of political files during this election cycle,” MAB wrote to members.

Oxenford suggested broadcasters upload a note with each order that was filed late, explaining that the filing system had been down.

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The timing of the online public inspection file issues is dubious for broadcasters since the FCC requires them to file the required political order data as soon as possible.

“The request and disposition must be placed in the file as soon as possible, which the commission has determined is immediately absent extraordinary circumstances,” according to the FCC public file guideline. “The reconciliation information need not be placed in the file immediately but the broadcaster must identify a person or persons at the station capable of informing an advertiser of the details of any reconciliation information.”

Scott Flick, an attorney with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, said that stations that were blocked during the outage from uploading on a timely basis should document that problem so they can demonstrate the failure was due to circumstances beyond their control. “Unfortunately, when someone is reviewing a station’s political file a year from now, it will look like the station messed up, and the station will need to be able to defend itself through the documentation of the problem,” Flick said. 

Another communications attorney said clients sometimes get error messages that files are too large when attempting to upload to the FCC online database. “Clients should shrink file sizes whenever possible before uploading to the FCC online database. That can be done Adobe if the file is in PDF form,” this attorney said.

The FCC regularly sends warnings to radio stations that are not compliant with online inspection public file obligations, observers say. Typically, quarterly issues/programs are the biggest culprit.

The commission began transitioning radio and television broadcasters to online public files in 2012; the digital switch was completed in 2018.