Fines against noncommercial stations may that are primarily student run may not be as harsh as they have been in the past under a ruling issued by the FCC’s Media Bureau earlier this week. The new policy came about as part of a consent decree entered into by an Iowa college-owned broadcaster whose student-run station had failed in its obligation to keep quarterly issues programs lists during most of the prior license renewal term, and also was late in meeting its obligations to file biennial ownership reports with the Commission. Instead of imposing what could have been as much as a $25,000 fine on the broadcaster, the FCC instead agreed to a consent decree by which the broadcaster contributed only $2500 to the government and agreed to certain ongoing obligations to insure its compliance with FCC rules going forward. The FCC also announced, as part of its decision in the case, that it would apply this policy of more leniency in other cases involving student-run stations in the future. See, for instance, this decision from last year for evidence of how this policy marks a change in the FCC's policy.
However, this new policy will apply in only very limited circumstances – only to noncommercial stations that are primarily student run. In the decision, the FCC recognized that these stations often had very limited budgets and also a high staff turnover as students graduated and new students took their place. As such, the potential for these kinds of errors increased, and yet the ability to pay for fines was small. In this case, the station involved had an annual budget of less than $7000. Were the Commission to impose big fines, these stations might be forced off the air, as the Commission noted a trend where many noncommercial student-run stations had been sold recently by colleges and universities – often leading to protests about the sales and inevitable format changes (see, for instance the decision we wrote about here).
Yet the FCC recognized that these stations served a public interest good – providing a training ground for future broadcast employees and often experience relevant to the education courses or mission of the college or high school with which they are associated. Because of this public interest benefit, student-run stations that violate certain FCC rules regarding paperwork issues – basically those involving missing ownership reports, public file issues including quarterly-issues programs lists and failing to publish or broadcast required announcements about matters such as the license renewal – will be notified of the violation by the FCC and will have an opportunity to enter into a consent decree – making a voluntary contribution to the Federal government of an amount like the one made in this case, and adopting a compliance program to prevent future violations. This program is available only to first-time violations. Repeated violations will apparently bring an FCC fine similar to those imposed on commercial stations,.
The new policy will not apply to other types of rule violations – like violations of the rules regarding on-air contests (see our most recent article about such violations here), rules relating to the technical operations of the station, indecency, or apparently underwriting issues. The policy will also be applicable only to stations that are “student-run” – those where students fill all the positions at the station but for a faculty advisor.
This is an important new policy adopted today by the FCC that should bring some welcome relief to student-run noncommercial stations. But the policy is a limited one – and even these stations still need to make sure that they observe the many FCC programming and technical rules that are on the books. The stations also need to recognize that it is a one-time only policy, so any station that takes advantage of it needs to go forward carefully, as future violations may bring more severe penalties.
In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I represented the licensee in connection with this matter.