The FCC today adopted rules to require that the public inspection files of radio stations (and of cable television systems and operators of satellite radio and television companies) to put their public inspection files online. While, thus far, the FCC has only released a public notice summarizing its decision and not the full text explaining its reasoning, what is clear is that the new rule will go in to effect later this year for commercial radio stations with 5 or more full-time employees which are located in the Top 50 markets. Other radio stations will have two years to come into compliance with the new requirements.

The rules, like the TV rules adopted several years ago (see our Q and A about the TV online file requirements, here), require that stations upload their files into an FCC-maintained database that will display the contents of each station’s file to the public. According to today’s public notice, political broadcasting material only needs to be uploaded on a going forward basis upon the effective date of the new rules (i.e. only new documents created after the effective date of the new rules needs to be uploaded - existing documents would be maintained in the station’s paper file until the two-year retention period for political documents has expired). It appears that all other documents not already in FCC databases will need to be fully uploaded by licensees within 6 months of the effective date of the new rules. The documents that will need to be uploaded within that 6 months would include Quarterly Issues Programs Lists and the Annual EEO Public Inspection file report back to the beginning of the station’s current license term - documents not normally filed with the FCC. Ownership Reports, FCC applications and similar documents filed with the FCC will be automatically uploaded to the station’s public file by the FCC’s own systems. 

The public notice does not appear to adopt any permanent exemption for small stations or noncommercial broadcasters - as had been initially suggested in the FCC’s NPRM in this proceeding. There was some discussion at the open meeting that there might be an opportunity for noncommercial stations to ask for a waiver to keep the names of donors out of the online file (noncommercial licensees being required to list in their files the names of donors who contribute specifically to certain programming, as opposed to those who donate to the station generally, who do not need to be disclosed). We’ll look for more details when the text of the FCC decision is released.

There was apparently no discussion of the exemption from online file requirements of letters from the public about station operations. For TV stations, such letters do not need to be uploaded to the online public file, but are instead maintained as the last remnant of the paper file. Here, too, we will have to wait for the full text of the FCC decision to see how those documents are handled by the FCC.

According to press reports, the FCC suggested that the requirements could become effective in 3 to 6 months, after the Office of Management and Budget completes their review under the Paperwork Reduction Act. We’ll have more when the full text of the FCC’s order is released.