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Moving Radio Public Files Online Takes Next Step

Agency includes broadcast, satellite radio in modernization effort

The FCC has voted to open a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to expand online public file obligations to broadcast radio, satellite radio, satellite TV and cable operators.

We recently reported that Chairman Tom Wheeler had enough votes with himself and the two other Democrats on the commission to pass the item.

GOP Commissioner Ajit Pai supported the item too, noting that moving public files online support’s the agency’s goal of modernization. He intends to pay attention to feedback from small radio stations, mentioning his trip last year to KZPA(AM), in remote Fort Yukon, Alaska. The FCC should be “sensitive to the fact” such small stations don’t have “the bodies and the bandwidth to handle every regulatory requirement Washington might conjure.”

“The FCC should do what it can to revitalize such stations, particularly struggling stations in the AM band” said Pai.

The item stems from a petition from three advocacy groups, Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause and the Sunlight Foundation, to make media ad purchases more transparent to the public. They had asked that the rule, which has been mandatory for all TV stations since 2012, be extended to cable and satellite television.

The FCC had wanted to expand the obligations to radio and believes this is the right venue to improve access to public files.

Radio owners questioned whether the agency has the technical ability to handle many more electronic files; in comments to the agency, they also cast doubt on the point of the change, considering that most radio ads are local, and not from national campaigns.

At the least, the agency should first consider a voluntary online public file before making it mandatory, said some broadcast owners.

In the NPRM, the commission says it realizes small stations have limited resources and proposes to minimize the effort involved for radio stations to make the switch, such as requiring that only new files would need to be uploaded to its database. While it has proposed entire public file documents be uploaded, the commission asks whether it should only require certain components to be posted.

The commission rejected the argument made by some broadcasters that the change only benefits national advocacy groups.

NAB had estimated the rule change could mean some 17,500 additional files could be uploaded to the FCC’s online public file database — sometimes all on the same day. The broadcast trade lobby had urged the commission to beef up its electronic infrastructure before extending the requirements to radio and the other entities.

The commission noted that using private Web hosting services to supplement its own resources would help alleviate network congestion. However, several commenters pointed out the interface between the two is not yet complete.

“Once work on this interface is completed, we anticipate that this would enable an entity to establish a link between its own privately-maintained electronic file database at the system or station to enable automatic synchronization with the database hosted at the FCC,” says the agency in the NPRM.

The FCC seeks input on improving the organization of the public file to make it easier to upload and download files as well as questions regarding backup files, format and a suggested timeline for implementing the change. Regarding timing, the agency asks whether stations in the largest markets, with more resources, should be required to implement the change before stations in smaller markets and whether any stations should be exempt from the new rule.

The commission proposes to make stations in Nielsen radio markets 1–50 that have five or more full-time employees comply first and give other stations two more years to comply.

Should the FCC permanently exclude NCE stations or any station with less than five full-time employees from the online public file requirements, asks the agency, which also seeks input on how to handle the complexities of creating radio contour maps for online use and asks whether such maps should be included at all in online public files.

Comments to MB Docket 14-127 are due 30 days after Federal Register publication.

Related: Radio Balks at Online Public Files