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Show Me the Public File

Although a majority of Missouri radio stations complied with Public Inspection File requests in a recent study, one in five licensees failed to produce Issues-Programs Lists upon demand during station visits.

Although a majority of Missouri radio stations complied with Public Inspection File requests in a recent study, one in five licensees failed to produce Issues-Programs Lists upon demand during station visits.

Large-market operators in the statewide study had the highest rate of noncompliance, followed by small- and medium-market stations.

Two factors encouraged our study of Issues-Programs List compliance.

First, the FCC has consistently promoted Lists as gauges of community service. The government requires noncommercial and commercial stations to maintain Public Inspection Files. In each File, Title 47 requires stations to prepare Lists that are available upon demand by the public and FCC.

Second, as part of the government’s localism debate, the FCC has encouraged the public to inspect station Files firsthand to assess the community service efforts of broadcasters. Based on the FCC’s continued emphasis of producing Lists to document local public service, we devised a study to visit Missouri Stations and report our encounters.

‘At any time’

Four times each year a licensee must have prepared a new List, which is stored in the Public Inspection File at the main studio location or at a designated location if the station has been granted a studio waiver. Stations may opt for a paper version or an on-site electronic database.

Each quarterly List must provide the station’s significant treatment of community issues and incorporate brief descriptions of issues as well as the days, times, titles and durations of programs deemed to have addressed community issues.

The Missouri Broadcasters Association, through timely e-newsletters, has consistently encouraged its membership to prepare and file complete quarterly information.

Researchers visited 19 noncommercial and 79 commercial broadcast outlets generated from a list of more than 300 stations licensed to serve Missouri communities in small, medium and large markets. Small-market stations, the largest percentage of radio operators in Missouri, accounted for 67 licensees. Medium markets, such as St. Joseph and Springfield, represented 14 stations. Seventeen stations in St. Louis and Kansas City, the state’s two largest metropolitan areas, were included in the sample.

We recruited several students from a Truman State University mass communication course to assist us with station visits statewide in 2006. Twenty minutes was established as a reasonable threshold for station personnel to produce Lists after individual requests. Federal law requires the Public File to be available for inspection “at any time” during regular business hours.

Researchers recorded field observations immediately following each visit.

One in five stations fail

While a majority of radio stations provided access to Lists, the radio industry in Missouri struggles with full compliance of federal requirements.

The noncompliance rate for all markets approaches 20 percent. Large-market radio stations in St. Louis and Kansas City had the highest rate of noncompliance: Four licensees (24 percent) were unable to produce access to required documentation within the research parameters. Thirteen radio licensees (19 percent) who operate small-market stations failed to comply with researchers’ requests.

The lowest rate of noncompliance, 14 percent, occurred among medium-market stations with a single licensee operating two stations in a Springfield radio cluster who failed to fulfill timely requests for List documentation. Of the 19 noncompliant broadcasters in all markets, 15 commercial and four noncommercial licensees had not met List availability.

Among group owners in Missouri, small operators had the highest rate of noncompliance (58 percent) followed by large-market (25 percent) and medium-market licensees (17 percent). Likewise, small-market locally owned stations (86 percent) had a higher failure rate than large markets (14 percent). Noncompliance among local owners in medium-markets was not a factor because the noncompliant stations operated under group ownership.

Encounters with stations

It was not uncommon for station personnel to claim that no one, except for the FCC, had requested File information for many years, if at all.

“This is the first time in my 21years of broadcasting anyone has asked for this,” said one program director.

Not only did the inability to access Public Files within 20 minutes of station visits account for noncompliance but also personnel with limited or no knowledge of Files, denial of access to Files and Lists (verbal refusals and locked studio doors) and incomplete Files.

The researchers visited dozens of stations with personnel who were prepared for List requests; however, unfamiliarity with the Public File, its contents and lack of timely access were encountered among station management and frontline employees (receptionists and front-counter personnel).

A researcher who entered a small-market station in mid-Missouri before noon waited several minutes for a station employee to acknowledge his presence at the front counter. “You’ll have to come back at 1:30. Our operations manager knows about the Public File,” the employee stated. When asked again if station personnel could offer immediate assistance, the reply was “no.”

A sales manager at another station cluster in the same community struggled to locate a Public File only to discover that the requested List had not been filed. “We had personnel turnover in 2005 — they did not prepare reports for that year — we need to take care of that,” the manager claimed.

Student-operated radio stations, which experience regular turnovers of personnel, face a continuous challenge of familiarizing station operators with File regulations. Contacts with two college broadcasters failed to produce access to Lists.

A researcher encountered the chief operator in a southeast Missouri station who was ill prepared for a File request. When asked for a copy of the List, the CO claimed to have no knowledge of a File or Lists.

The CO pointed to stacks of yellowed documents on a shelf. “That’s all we’ve got, if that’s what you’re looking for. If the FCC was to come, I’d just have to throw all that up there [on the shelf] down on the floor here and say, ‘There you go, see if you can find what you want,’” the CO said.

It was apparent that the documents did not include current Lists and it’s unlikely the FCC would agree with this station’s the filing system.

Another southeast Missouri broadcaster, who did not respond to knocks on a locked station door during business hours, had posted a sign informing the public of limited studio accessibility. The station was obviously broadcasting because its transmission was being received on the researcher’s car radio and could be heard from speakers inside the building.

A sign posted on the window claimed the station was open for business twelve hours per week, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Federal law requires access to Lists eight hours a day, Monday through Friday.

The presence of larger staffs, which would presumably handle frequent requests for File information in metropolitan areas, did not significantly increase the chances of compliance.

Despite requests to access the studio File, a Kansas City station steered our field researcher to List documentation supposedly posted on the broadcaster’s Web site; no link was apparent.

A St. Louis broadcaster denied access to its File claiming that only the human resources director, absent from the studio, had been authorized to service requests.

Suggestions for greater compliance

The rate at which Missouri broadcasters failed to produce List requests is likely a concern to licensees beyond the Show-Me state.

In the 1980s, researchers visited stations nationwide to ascertain access to the Annual List of Problems and Needs, the precursor to today’s Issues-Programs List. A noncompliance finding of 20 percent matches the Missouri study rate more than two decades later. It is not unreasonable to conclude that a nationwide sample of station visits in 2007 would yield similar results.

Our findings serve as reminders that station employees charged with preparing or fulfilling public information requests must abide by relatively modest federal laws.

One station manager, who complied with our request for File access, suggested that List documentation is useless if no one asks for it (the government claims that stations should use the documents internally to determine levels of community service as well as for public scrutiny).

The public undoubtedly has little knowledge of Lists or the right to inspect Files because stations are not required to publicize access to prescribed records, nor has the FCC consistently promoted the existence of File information.

If stations take pride in community service, generating, maintaining and actively promoting Lists would seem to favor rather than punish broadcasters. Many stations regularly provide public service documentation to the National Association of Broadcasters as demonstrations of community involvement. Why not expand this information to a wider audience?

If licensees promote community service documented on Lists through a variety of communications devices, including the Internet, we foresee public awareness of both the existence of the Lists and the extent to which stations take pride in serving their communities.

As we write, the FCC is considering the viability of Public File postings on station Web sites. We suggest that broadcasters take a proactive attitude. List compilations posted on station Web sites, combined with invitations to comment on public service, would seem to respond, in part, the localism debate initiated by the FCC. Many stations ask the public to provide news tips. Why not invite listeners to examine Web site Lists and suggest community issues that licensees can address with station programming?