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SPECIAL REPORT PART TWO: What The FCC is Looking For...Through The Eyes of an Inspector

During a week Radio Ink happens to be running a 5-part series on FCC fines, there is no shortage of material. Just yesterday, one day after running a story on keeping your public file clean, another station gets nailed. WEIC was hit with a $1,300 fine for "its willful and repeated violation of failing to retain all required documentation in the Stations public inspection file. It had to do with the stations public file and dated back to 1996. The commission originally levied a $10,000 fine but reduced it to $1,300 yesterday.

So it appears some of you are so busy with other managerial duties, you are rolling the dice that an agent from the federal government will never come walking through the station doors. If you ever wondered what you should have ready if the man in the black windbreaker with FCC printed on the back does show up, here you go.

Having conducted over 700 Alternative Broadcast Inspections, Bob Shotwell is the perfect man to talk to when it comes to FCC inspections. "I find there are few areas which cause more angst and confusion than the FCCs Public Inspection File requirements". Here is what Bob says every station should have prepared.

First and foremost, this public inspection file needs to be readily available during all business hours.  If it's under lock and key or your front office and other staff is unaware of its existence, you are already in trouble. One problem with maintaining the public file is the retention period. How long must items kept in the file? Frankly this is a moving target:  Applications, until final action is taken;  Political File, two years;  Letters from the public (for commercial stations, only), three years;  Issues-Program List, for the term of the license, license and contour maps, forever.

Agreed, there is no uniformity here, but neither should there be any mystery.  Refer to the checklist and keep the material in the file only for the period of time required.  Many stations are reluctant to remove documents for fear they may be needed in the future.  True, some things may be worth holding for historical reasons. If this is your concern I suggest moving those documents from the public file to another file, bankers-box storage, or scan them into computer storage.  A smaller but compliant public file is much easier to maintain and tells the inspector, be it FCC or ABIP, that you have a handle on what the requirements are. 

The section of the public file most frequently found to be deficient and which results in most of the FCC fines, is the Issues-Programs list, commonly referred to as Quarterly Issues.  The FCC asks for a list of programs that have provided the stations most significant treatment of community issues.  How many issues or programs does the FCC require you to list?  Simply put - they dont tell you!  Most communications law firms will recommend five to ten. Yours may vary.  Remember, one of the purposes of this requirement is to document your most significant treatment of community issues. This list may well be used to fend-off a renewal challenge or give ammunition to someone looking to make that challenge. Also, please note the FCC requirement for documenting quarterly issues includes, at a minimum, a brief narrative, time, date, duration and title of each program in which the issue was treated.  As if to stress this requirement, the author of the checklist has gone so far as to underscore most of these items.  Lastly, the quarterly issues list must be placed into the public file no later than the 10th of the month following the quarter.  Some stations will do this on an on-going basis,  as issues are aired  (public service programs,  community leader in-studio guest, etc)  Doing this on an on-going basis is certainly not required, but it certainly eliminates an every-three-month panic.
The Public File is only one small portion of an FCC or ABIP inspection.   Also included during an inspection is a review of all instruments of authorizations (licenses), EAS records and functionality, logs, transmitter and tower site technicalities, and more. 

There is a difference between the two inspections, however:  An FCC inspection typically is a surprise event.  You dont know theyre coming and whatever else you had planned for the rest of the day takes a backseat.  If anything is found out of compliance, it is too late to correct, your hand has been dealt.   

With an ABIP inspection, this has been arranged well ahead of time.  I make it a practice to come in not as an enforcer but rather as a colleague.  If something is not as it should be it can be corrected either during the inspection or subsequent to it.  Once a station is determined to be in compliance, a three-year Certificate of Compliance is issued through the State Broadcast Association.  Generally speaking, this exempts a station from routine, surprise FCC inspections.  Some exceptions that could still trigger an inspection are tower lighting/painting violations, EEO compliance audits, etc. Moreover, it is a perfect every three year how-goes-it?.  Having a different set of eyes looking at things can be quite revealing.  Best of all, most State Broadcast Associations will share part of the cost.  If you are not part of the ABIP program, you owe it to yourself to check into it. 

You'll find this website very useful It's the F.C.C. self-inspection checklist:

Bob Shotwell has been in broadcasting since 1971 as an announcer, engineer, manager, station owner, and consultant.  He holds an FCC General Radiotelephone license,  Radar endorsed, is an SBE Certified Senior Broadcast Engineer and holds a NARTE Master Engineer Certification.  He is an ABIP Inspector with and managing partner at Spectrum Investigative Services and can be reached at



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(8/7/2014 3:40:50 PM)
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- NY
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- NY

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