U.S. commercial broadcast stations will no longer need to retain copies of letters and emails from the public.
The Federal Communications Commission has amended its public inspection file rules. Over the past year or two it has already been scaling back and revising longtime public file requirements, and moving the public file process almost entirely online. But the question of the correspondence file has been contentious and was a hangover from the end of the Thomas Wheeler-era FCC.
Now one of the first actions of the Ajit Pai FCC is to dump that provision too. The National Association of Broadcasters immediately reacted with strong support and noted the bipartisan nature of the decision; but a Hispanic media advocacy group strongly objected.
Pai issued a statement that started with one of his now-familiar anecdotes that endear him to many in the radio industry:
“A few years ago, I visited KKOW(FM) in Pittsburg, Kansas. It’s one of the radio stations I listened to a lot growing up. During my visit, the station’s staff showed me an imposing series of huge file cabinets filled with folders, each folder stuffed with paper. It was the station’s public inspection files, dating back many years. When I asked how often members of the public came to inspect them, they laughed — I was the first that anyone could remember, and they had been with the station a long time. What they didn’t laugh about was the burden of maintaining all that paper. KKOW is a small station, and its staff are stretched thin handling programming, sales, technical matters and … paperwork.”
The chairman said that there is “little, if any, connection between the correspondence file requirement and its purported goal of ensuring that a station serves its local community.” He said stations can still communicate directly with a station “by letter, email, or through social media” and that the public will continue to be able to file petitions or objections concerning a station licensee’s performance at the time the station files its renewal application.
Pai said the FCC is “fully ensconced in the digital age, but our rules still require many regulated entities to put a priority on pulp.” He thanked fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly for his work on the issue.
“Stations will still have every incentive to serve their communities in an increasingly competitive marketplace. In short, getting rid of this requirement will simply allow commercial broadcasters, like the hardworking folks I met at KKOW, to transition to an entirely online public file and send those clunky file cabinets packing.”
Michael O’Rielly’s statement thanked Pai and their Democratic colleague Mignon Clyburn for their support. “I recommit myself to the task of doing whatever I can to clear out similar underbrush in this and other regulated spaces. We will all be better off if we spend half the time we do regulating on finding ways to remove unnecessary and obsolete burdens on broadcasters.”
The FCC also spiked a requirement that cable operators maintain the designation and location of a cable system’s principal headend for public inspection.
Pai also congratulated Bill Lake, the FCC’s longtime Media Bureau Chief, on his last day at the FCC. He called Lake a dedicated public servant.