The FCC yesterday issued a Hearing Designation Order for two AM stations in Virginia as these stations were silent for most of their license renewal terms. One of the two stations was on the air for only 54 days out of the 3.4 years that the licensee held the station during the license term, and only 66 days out of the over 6 years since the term ended. The second station operated for only 48 days of the 3.4 year license term, and 309 days of the 5.3 years following the term, and then only at a reduced power covering only a small portion of its city of license. Given these brief periods of operation, the Commission determined that it could not make the finding required by the Communications Act necessary to justify a renewal – that the station had served the public interest during its license renewal term. Thus, the licenses were designated for a paper hearing, where the licensee has the opportunity to come forward with evidence of its service to the public during the license term, and the FCC will then decide whether or not to renew the license.
This case follows several others about which we have written (see our articles here, here and here), where the FCC has questioned whether stations that were off the air for significant periods deserved a license renewal. The cases all stem from radio station license renewals filed during the last license renewal window from 2011 to 2013. In some cases, this seemed to take licensees who had consistently received FCC approval for extended periods of silence by surprise when, even though the FCC had approved their silence, the FCC decided that the prolonged silence meant that their licenses could be put in jeopardy. These FCC actions were based on a decision in 2001 where the FCC determined that a station that had been silent for prolonged periods had not served the public interest, but that the Commission could not deny its license renewal because the broadcast community had not been put on notice that long periods of silence would put a license renewal in jeopardy. The recent decisions look to the 2001 case as putting the industry on notice that the Commission’s policy going forward would be to deny licenses where stations had been off the air for most of their renewal term – though that policy did not become evident until a decade later when it was enforced during the next license renewal cycle starting in 2011. These recent cases indicate the current thinking of the FCC. With the next radio license renewal cycle beginning in 2019, licensees that have stations that are currently silent should make efforts now to get back on the air on a long-term basis to avoid having these issues brought up when their next license renewals are being evaluated.