REC Position Statement: MB Dkt 24-14: Priority Application Review for Broadcast Stations that Provide Local Journalism or Other Locally Originated Programming

On January 10 and released on January 17, 2024, the Commission adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in MB Docket 24-14 that is titled “Priority Application Review for Broadcast Stations that Provide Local Journalism or Other Locally Originated Programming”.

When I was in DC late last year, Chair Rosenworcel did mention in a meeting that I had with her as an exparte on the Application for Review on the FM Duplication Rule decision, that she was looking at a rulemaking that would reward broadcasters who air local programming or have local journalism.  She did not expand on that at the time.  Well, this is what she apparently had in mind.

Specifically, what the proposal is would be a change in process, where those broadcasters who provide a certain level of local programming (duration and definition of the area that is considered "local” to be determined) would be given “priority evaluation” on renewal, transfer and assignment of license applications over those applicants that do not have local programming.  This is not proposed to make any changes to minor modifications or other regular applications.

While we applaud the Chairwoman for taking local programming seriously, we cannot see how this proposal will make for an expedited experience unless it means extending the handling time on non-local programming applicants. 

Currently there are statutes in the Communications Act that does not allow the FCC to take any action on an application, other than a minor modification and other administrative application types less than 30 days after the application is published to public notice.  In addition, the Act does not permit a renewal to be granted more than 30 days prior to the license expiration date.

Based on our own experiences in the Audio Division, a “clean” assignment application that is fairly simple, does not require a massive review, is not controversial and does not have any informal objections or petitions to deny currently take about 45 to 60 days to process.  A “clean” renewal is normally granted about 2 weeks prior to the license expiration date.  This does not leave much room for any kind of improvement to the existing policy.  In the case of renewals, most of the clean renewals are granted on the same day anyway.  Also, even if a renewal has not had any action on it at the time the license expires, the station is still authorized to broadcast as long as they filed their renewal application before the expiration date.  If there is even one informal objection, all bets for “priority” handling are out the door.

For renewal applications, we do not feel that it gives applicants any real value as they would be authorized to broadcast anyway.  Perhaps going in the other direction and shaving a month off of the filing deadline (3 months instead of 4) for local programming certified applicants.  This can be done by eliminating a “grace period” which exists in the Audio Division where renewal applications that are late, but less than 30 days late will not receive any enforcement action.  Perhaps, for nonlocal programming applicants start enforcing the $3,000 or $1,500 forfeiture on day 31.  Or perhaps, for local programming applicants extend the deadline to 3 months instead of 4 months prior and maintain the grace period. 

For assignment applicants, we do not see any value to this because while the current licensee (assignor) may have a track record of local programming, they are selling the station to another entity which either has no track record of local programming or they may have such a record on other commonly owned stations that may not be as favorable to this.  Again, we can’t predict what the new owner is going to do. 

Those entities that do not provide local programming may tout this proposal as “penalizing” them for not running local programming if the intervals turn out to be status quo for those with certifiable local programming and a delayed response for others.  In addition, if an owner who is looking to sell their station, they can state that they are eligible to get the expedited handling, thus allowing them to demand a premium for the sale of the station. This practice would further shut out diverse groups and new entrants seeking to purchase stations. 

We see the proposal, even though commendable, as impractical from a statutory perspective.  It can be easily viewed as “punishing” some broadcasters who choose not to provide local programming, will create a long running debate on what is local from a full-service perspective, does nothing for FM translators and could have the unexpected consequence of shutting out some minorities and new entrants.

Instead, we would rather see the FCC focus on initiatives that would increase localism, such as LP-250 (RM-11909), translator reform (RM-11952) in order to help assure that there will be future LPFM opportunities and opening new opportunities for lower powered noncommercial educational stations in underserved rural areas by eliminating some archaic technical limitations (RM-11846).  The Commission should be looking at a long-term plan to repurpose TV Channel 5 and 6 (WIDE-FM) in order to help foster new local broadcasters in virgin spectrum. 

REC will not oppose this rulemaking but we don’t feel that it will add any real value or incentive.  We need to focus on initiatives that will encourage not just local programming, but local ownership, local accountability and local availability, especially for new entrants.