FCC Releases Draft Order to Abolish Main Studio Rule – To Be Considered at its October 24 Meeting

The FCC yesterday released the agenda for its October 24th Open Meeting, as well as draft orders of the matters to be considered at that meeting. For broadcasters, the single most significant proposal was a draft order (available here) to abolish the requirement that a broadcast station maintain a main studio in close proximity to its city of license that is open to the public and staffed during normal business hours. The FCC’s draft order determines that, in today’s modern world, where much communication with broadcasters is done by phone or electronically, and as stations either have or soon will have their public files available online, there was no longer any need to maintain the rule mandating the main studio. So, if the Commission adopts the draft order at its October 24th meeting, the requirement which has been on the books since 1939 will be eliminated.

Together with the main studio rule, the FCC order would also eliminate the requirement that the station have staff members available at that studio. Instead, the licensee, to maintain contact with their community, must maintain a toll-free number accessible to residents of the station’s city of license. That number must be answered during normal business hours of the station – but the person answering the phone line need not be in the city of license. The FCC urged, but did not require, that the phone line be monitored during other hours as well. The phone line can be shared with multiple stations – so an “800” number available nationwide would seem to meet the requirement.

The FCC also would eliminate local program origination obligations. So station owners need no longer have some physical presence in their community where they can originate programming. The FCC said that technology allows stations to put callers on the air from anywhere, and even to do video through Skype and other similar technology providers. Stations do, however, still need to serve their communities. They still need to maintain Quarterly Issues Programs lists (which, as we wrote here, are due to be placed in a station’s file this quarter by next week). These lists require that the station list the most significant issues facing its community in the past quarter and the programs broadcast by the station addressing each of those issues. Thus, a station will need to continue to monitor, in some way, the issues in their community and broadcast programming addressing those issues – but how they accomplish those requirements, and the location from which they do so, is up to them.

Stations that have fully transitioned to the online public file need no longer keep any physical documents in their communities of license. But stations that have not yet made that transition (with the transition deadline for radio stations in smaller markets, and smaller groups in large markets, being March 1, 2018) must maintain a paper public file in their city of license until all of the documents required to be in the file are transitioned to the online public file. The file must be maintained at a location in their community of license that is open during normal business hours (e.g. a public library or an office for some local business). Small market stations can transition to the online public file now (they need not wait until March 1), so they can eliminate the need to maintain a paper public file in their community if they decide to eliminate their main studio once this rule is adopted and becomes effective.

Note, however, that even for stations that transition to the online public file, there may be some residual paper file obligations. While the FCC eliminated the need to maintain letters from the public, which had to be kept in a paper file, earlier this year (see our article here), for most stations, after March 1 of next year, the only documents not in the online public file will be documents from the political file – as stations need only include in the online public file political documents created after the transition date (see our article here about the new online public file obligations for radio). Older political documents need not be placed in the public file. Those documents need to be kept for 2 years from the date of their creation. For all stations, by March 1, 2020, there should be no need for a physical file at all. For stations that do have “old” political documents, to avoid having to maintain a paper public file in their community, they can upload all old political documents to their online file, even though they are not required to do so.

The rule changes will become effective, if adopted, when they are published in the Federal Register, except for the rules dealing with the public file. Those rules will be effective upon their approval by the Office of Management and Budget under the Paperwork Reduction Act.

If the FCC acts as expected to approve this rule on October 24, many changes in broadcast operations will become permissible. While the changes may allow broadcasters to recognize significant cost savings, we reiterate the FCC’s warning that stations, no matter the physical source from which their programming originates, need to remember that they still have an obligation to serve the interests of their communities. Public interest groups will, no doubt, be watching – so broadcasters beware.