Public Files on the Chopping Block

Just in time for the start of the latest radio station license-renewal cycle, the FCC opens up for question the notion of abolishing the public file requirement for broadcasters.
This is not a self-imposed initiative: it is a consideration the agency is mandated to make, courtesy of the Paperwork Reduction Act. It requires regulatory agencies to periodically review their rules and justify their existence to the Office of Management and Budget.
A communications law attorney filed a Petition for Rulemaking directly with the FCC to do away with the public file five years ago. The Petition attracted less than three dozen comments, most of which came from broadcasters who supported killing it off. The FCC circular-filed the idea.
According to the D.C. telecom law firm of Fletcher, Heald and Hildreth, the local station public file requirement is essentially pointless:
According to many broadcasters…such files are largely if not totally ineffective and unnecessary, since (in the reported experience of many of those broadcasters) the public seldom if ever inspects the files. From that perspective, the requirement to maintain the files is an empty make-work exercise that serves no purpose. . . other than to provide the FCC with a way to collect tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars in fines from folks who happen not to have dotted all their public file I’s and crossed all their public file T’s.
Indeed, the FCC takes the public file requirement very seriously – having recently fined several stations thousands of dollars apiece for failing to maintain them properly.
However, the argument to abolish is circular. Public files of broadcast stations are seldom inspected because the public is largely unaware that they exist, and even less aware that it has the right to inspect them. Stations certainly don’t go out of their way to inform the public of its rights in this regard, which further exacerbates the lack of utilization.
Couching advocacy for the banishment of the public file requirement as economically burdensome is also a cop-out. Given the consolidation the radio industry has experienced since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it’s no surprise that stations are letting this important license requirement slip: there’s no longer enough people employed at radio stations to properly maintain many public files.
The slashing of station personnel arguably has made public file maintenance more burdensome – but that’s a consequence of prior bad broadcast policy, and no excuse for eliminating this rule.
In fact, one could argue that the public file requirement is the last meaningful remnant of the FCC’s “commitment” to localism in broadcasting. Sure, the agency’s Localism Task Force has studied the issue – even to the point of publishing a detailed Report and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in 2008, which would have promoted more use of the public file rules – but nothing has come of it.
On its face, I’d be willing to trade the public file requirement for localism regulations with more teeth, but that’s a pipe-dream.
Public comments on this issue will be accepted through June 17. There is no formal FCC proceeding on the subject, but you can send feedback via e-mail to and There’s a better-than-even chance that the FCC will recommend keeping the public file rule, but the OMB has final say. Giving the FCC fodder to strengthen its justification can’t hurt.