FCC Deregulates Public File Requirement Re: Letters from the Public

Ajit Pai
Ajit Pai

New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai chaired his first Commission meeting with a Commission consisting of two Republicans (Pai and Michael O’Rielly) and one Democrat (Mignon Clyburn). The Commissioners unanimously approved a proposal to eliminate a rule requiring commercial TV and radio broadcast stations to maintain copies of correspondence (both letters and emails) from the public in a locally maintained public file. Full language of the Report and Order is available here.

The Commissioners stated that, in today’s world of social media, the requirement for the retention of letters in a paper public file is no longer necessary. National Association of Broadcasters’ EVP/Communications Dennis Wharton commented, “NAB applauds the FCC for its bipartisan decision to eliminate archaic correspondence file requirements and we thank Commissioner O’Rielly for his leadership on this issue. The order serves as a strong demonstration of Chairman Pai’s commitment to curtailing burdensome regulations that hinder broadcasters’ ability to operate, create jobs and serve the public interest.”

David Oxenford writes that the change will become effective once published in the Federal Register, following approval of rule change by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act.  Until that publication, the rule remains in effect, so stations shouldn’t rush to the dumpster with their correspondence files just yet.

Scott Flick, in the CommLawCenter, notes that TV stations have been required to have all other portions of their public file online for a while now. Radio stations, on the other hand, have only recently begun to move their public files online, with commercial stations that are located in the top 50 markets (and which have five or more full-time employees) having to have uploaded all documents (except for the political file) by December 24, 2016. Because such stations have only had to upload their political file documents on a going-forward basis since June 24, 2016, unless such a station elects to also voluntarily upload all of its last two years of political documents (the political file retention period), it cannot eliminate its physical public file until June 24, 2018, at which point the station will have uploaded on a going-forward basis two years of political file documents.

All other radio stations, including noncommercial stations, are not required to upload their public file documents until March 1, 2018, and again, that excludes political file documents, which only must be uploaded on a going-forward basis beginning on that date. As a result, radio stations in this “Second Wave” won’t have all of their public file documents (including political file documents) online until March 1, 2020. Consequently, these stations won’t get the benefit of eliminating their physical public file until 2020 unless they elect to upload all public file documents, including the political file, earlier than that.

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