In a decision released yesterday, the FCC proposed to fine a station and gave it a short-term license renewal as the station could not demonstrate that it had served the needs and interests of its community. Why? Because the station had been silent for much of the renewal term – only turning on for a short time every now and then – enough to avoid having its license cancelled for being silent for more than a year. Several years ago, Congress amended the Communications Act to add Section 312(g) requiring that the FCC cancel a station’s license if it has been silent for more than a year, unless the station can demonstrate some overriding public interest reason for leniency (a showing that, as we wrote here, is difficult to make).

To avoid the ultimate sanction of having a license cancelled, many stations facing economic issues or other long-term problems with transmitter sites or other matters, will find a way to turn their stations back on the air for a day or two to avoid being off the air for more than a year. As long as programming is run on the station during that on-air period, the FCC has thus far allowed the stations to continue in this mode. But, in this license renewal cycle, broadcasters were for the first time required to specify if their stations had been of the air for more than 30 days at any point in the license term. In yesterday’s decision, the FCC makes clear that a station that spent a significant amount of time off the air may face a sanction – here, the grant of the license renewal for only 2 years rather than the normal 8 year period. If a station is off the air for more than half the renewal term, it looks like an even more serious sanction may be in the works.

In the decision, the Commission suggested that stations that have been off the air for more than half of their license term might be designated for hearing to determine if their licenses should be revoked. The Commission suggests that these stations have not been serving the public when they have been off the air, so they shouldn’t get a renewal. There is even a footnote suggestion that stations that have been operating at significantly reduced power where they have not been able to cover their city of license also are not serving the public.

Of course, it would have been much better had the Commission made this policy clear – perhaps when it adopted the new renewal form that asks whether stations have been off the air for any extended period of time. While it was hinted that sanctions would be possible – what those sanctions would be and when they would be applied was not made clear. In this week’s decision, a 13 year old case is cited for the proposition that broadcasters should have been on notice of the potential for this action – yet it took until almost the end of the FCC’s 3 year radio license renewal cycle before this supposed notice has been brought it to the attention of broadcasters.

No doubt, this is not the last we have heard on this issue. But, going forward, it seems clear that the FCC is making clear that stations need to operate regularly or potentially face the consequences – so be ready to keep operating through thick and thin to avoid issues down the road.