Serving the public interest is a key tenet for holding a broadcast license; when a licensee looks as though they have failed to follow through on that, the Federal Communications Commission can take decisive action.
That was the specter hanging over Cochise Media Licenses LLC. A licensee of nearly two dozen FM stations in several Northwest and Southwest states, Cochise recently put up a license renewal request for 11 of them, moved to outright surrender 10 other licenses and requested assignment of one FM in LaVerne, Utah. In response, the commission entered into a consent decree with Cochise after finding the licensee had engaged in a series of long-term, chronic failures in its operation of its stations, which included failing to transmit a broadcast signal for long periods of time — years, in some cases — and failing to obtain special temporary authority to remain silent.
The commission has a stringent policy against extended periods of silence for broadcast stations; the goal is to ensure that broadcast spectrum does not lie fallow but unavailable to others who might be capable of maintaining service to the public. The FCC rule on the books states that stations that remain silent for more than 30 days must obtain an STA and those that fail to transmit broadcast for a consecutive 12-month period can lose the license automatically.
According to the FCC, several Cochise stations were silent for significant periods of time, and seemed to follow a pattern in which some would resume operation for a short period of time in an effort to avoid being silent for more than 12 consecutive months. KCDC in Loma, Colo., for example, was silent for a total of four years between the start date of March 17, 2009 and April 1, 2013, with the station operating a total of only 25 days within that window.
Back in 2001, the commission cautioned licensees that broadcasters would face a heavy burden in demonstrating service in the public interest if one remained silent for most of a license term. “A broadcaster seeks and is granted the free and exclusive use of a limited and valuable part of the public domain,” the commission wrote in an earlier ruling. “[A] broadcast license is a public trust subject to termination for breach of duty.”
Citing a “chronic failure to serve the public interest,” the FCC put all of Cochise’s renewal applications on hold while it satisfies the terms of the consent decree, which includes donating all of its licenses from the stations it wishes to surrender to nonprofit organizations.
If those steps are satisfied, the commission agreed to a short-term grant of one year for the stations Cochise hopes to renew. The bureau also agreed to the regular-term license assignment of station KUTQ in La Verne, Utah, if Cochise meets its obligations regarding the surrendered stations.
In a separate order, the FCC took action against another Cochise station, KXMK(FM). The FCC did not approve Cochise’s STA request and instead entered into a consent decree in which the licensee must donate the station’s license and related equipment of to a nonprofit organization.