The changes in the FCC’s rules for Biennial Ownership Reports on FCC Form 323 were today published in the Federal Register. That publication starts the 30 day clock for petitions for reconsideration or requests for appeal of that decision. We summarized the changes in the requirements here – changes that include putting noncommercial stations on the same schedule as commercial stations (filing on December 1 of odd-numbered years) and requiring that all licensees obtain, for every person or entity with an attributable interest, an FCC Registration Number (an “FRN”). To get an FRN, the licensee must either submit the Social Security number (“SSN”) of the person with an attributable interest (or the Taxpayer ID number if the interest holder is not an individual) or the last four digits of the SSN plus other identifying information (their full name, residence address and date of birth). The requirement for an FRN has triggered concern among many broadcasters, particularly those where licenses are held by a college or university.
Why? Some licensees fear that, even though the personal information necessary to get an FRN will not be made public, the submission of that information to the FCC may still somehow compromise the security or privacy of individuals with attributable interests. While the FCC assured licensees in its order that these concerns are overblown as the Commission says that it maintains information with a high level of security, there are still doubters. Nevertheless, the FCC has required that the FRN be obtained for all attributable interest holders, and threatened to take enforcement action against interest holders who refuse to comply. The FCC also identified for whom the information needs to be provided.
The order adopting these ownership report requirements requires makes clear that, for noncommercial licensees, the attributable interest holders will include the members of the governing board of the licensee. The FRN will be used to track that individual through all the FCC’s broadcast databases to see if they have other broadcast interests. The report will also reveal the gender and race or ethnicity of all those with attributable interests. This information will be used to fulfill one of the FCC’s principal purposes for the ownership report – gathering data to permit the agency to assess concentration and diversity of ownership in the broadcast industry.
Where schools or similar organizations are the licensee, members of their governing boards volunteer to serve, not because of the radio or TV license that the school may hold, but instead to oversee the other aspects of the educational process. While such boards should be aware of the FCC-licensed facility that they control (and exercise that control like any other licensee), there is a fear that the requirement to provide this information to the FCC will be a concern to these volunteers, and the concern may discourage otherwise qualified board candidates from serving on the governing boards of these colleges and universities. As we warned noncommercial licensees when these rules were first adopted, they should be familiarizing their board members with this requirement now so that they won’t have last-minute objections when these reports are to be prepared and filed next year. But don’t be surprised if, in the next month, we see some noncommercial licensees (and possibly some commercial ones as well) making one last run at the FCC through a request for reconsideration asking that the FCC amend these new reporting requirements.