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FCC Cuts Student-Run NCEs a Break

Incomplete public file at William Penn’s KIGC prompts rule change

A case involving a student-run station has persuaded the FCC to adopt a new policy for such noncomms that are first-time offenders of the public file rules.

The gist of the change is that instead of first levying a Notice of Apparent Liability for an infraction right away, the commission will now give the licensee an opportunity to negotiate a consent decree, in which the station does not admit guilt, adheres to a compliance plan and makes a “voluntary” contribution to the U.S. Treasury.

The change is only for first-time offenders and only for student-run NCE stations.

Of the nearly 3,800 licensed NCE radio stations in the U.S., fewer than 500 are run by students, according to the FCC, which says in its decision that such stations occupy a unique place in the media landscape because they are talent incubators as well as media outlets.

The change comes at a time when more schools are selling their NCE stations because they see them as a drain on their limited financial resources. The agency is concerned that imposing fines that exceed the budget of these stations will worsen the sell-off trend, and reduce opportunities for students to get real-world radio training.

These NCE facilities rely on students for all aspects of station management, to get experience and supplement their educational training, notes the commission, which realizes the students probably aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of FCC regulations. As students graduate and leave the station, new students must be trained, and they often have little professional oversight as faculty advisors have limited time to do that, observes the FCC.

The change is a real reversal of commission policy. In the past, the Media Bureau has consistently rejected arguments that the agency should give student-run stations a break and impose smaller fines on them, saying the students chosen to run the station should know the rules. When imposing fines, the agency typically looks at what the university can pay, not just the station.

Media Bureau Chief Bill Lake says in the decision that the commission hopes a compliance plan will promote, rather than undermine, rules compliance. 

The case that prompted the new rule concerns the student-run station of a small university founded by Quakers located in Oskaloosa, Iowa. William Penn University operates the less-than 250-watt KIGC(FM). The station had a $7,000 annual budget, which was cut to $6,650 this year.

In its renewal application, the university disclosed several documents were missing from its public file.

Instead of imposing what would have been a $20,000 fine, the FCC and the university negotiated an agreement that has the 19 student-run station adhering to a compliance plan while the university makes a $2,500 contribution to the U.S. Treasury.