Noncommercial educational (NCE) radio stations, such as those owned by colleges and universities across the country, are licensed by and subject to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”). Among the many FCC regulations applicable to NCE stations is the requirement to maintain public inspection files into which copies of applications, reports and other documentation must be placed. Failure to maintain these files can result in fines or, in more egregious cases, a shortened term of renewal of the station’s license. The FCC’s recent enforcement actions demonstrate that it is irrelevant to the FCC that the stations are partly or completely managed by students. Colleges and Universities as station owners are responsible for compliance.
Since May 14, 2012, the FCC has imposed $10,000 fines on the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, Columbia University, Rollins College and Toccoa Falls College for violations of FCC public inspection file requirements by each institution’s NCE station. On August 12 the FCC imposed a smaller fine ($1,000) on Ball State University for a similar violation.
The FCC becomes aware of violations of public inspection file requirements in several ways. In the case of Rollins College, an FCC field agent responded to a complaint and conducted an inspection of the station’s public inspection file. The file was missing years of issues/programs lists, a quarterly list and brief description of programs that have provided the station’s most significant treatment of community issues during the preceding three month period.
The FCC became aware of the violations of the public inspection file requirements by the other institutions during its review of the stations’ license renewal applications. License renewal applications must be filed by NCE stations every eight (8) years. The FCC’s license renewal form (Form 303-S) requires the station filer to certify that the documentation required by the rules has been placed in the station’s public inspection file. A station that failed to add its quarterly issues/programs to its file on a timely basis must respond “No” to the certification question and provide an explanation. Maryland Eastern Shore, Columbia and Toccoa Falls College were compelled to disclose massive failures to maintain their issues/programs lists by responding “No” to the certification question in their respective renewal applications. Ball State was fined a lower amount due to extenuating circumstances. For NCE stations in the New England states, a renewal application will be due on December 1, 2013.
These FCC actions followed several similar forfeiture impositions on NCE stations last year. In taking a hard-line position generally on public file violations by both commercial and noncommercial stations, the FCC has made clear that student-run radio stations will not be held to a lesser standard of compliance. Notwithstanding staff turnover of at least 25% a year and the fact that the NCE station staff are full-time students, not professionals, the FCC shows no tolerance when faced with rule violations. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon educational institutions to maintain oversight of FCC compliance for student-run radio stations similar to oversight provided to assure compliance with other federal regulations such as disclosure requirements under the Clery Act and environmental regulations. A central component of that oversight should be timely, substantive training on compliance with applicable FCC regulations for the student operators of this valuable property.