As the one-year anniversary of Hurricanes Irma and Maria approaches, many radio and television stations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have yet to return to normal. Electricity was only fully restored to Puerto Rico this month, but many non-residential sites – such as El Yunque National Forest where several radio and TV transmitters are located – haven’t yet had their electrical lines restored. Some stations are also coping with danged transmitters and antennas. The situation isn’t much better in the Virgin Islands, despite the fact that power was fully restored in March. Stations in both U.S. territories have traditionally had a slim margin of error in their business plans and the devastation caused by the hurricanes upended local economies and only complicated efforts to return to normal broadcasts.
The Federal Communications Commission reports 10 AM stations, 8 FMs and 3 FM translators are currently silent in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. That’s in addition to 11 full-power TV stations, 35 low-power TV stations and 3 TV translators.
Under federal law, a radio or television station license automatically expires when a station isn’t on the air for a consecutive year. But the FCC announced Thursday that in order to ensure stations are not “unduly burdened by regulatory requirements as they undertake the difficult process of rebuilding,” it will focus on a critical loophole. Under the Communications Act, the FCC is allowed to extend or reinstate a terminated license if it determines that such a move would promote “equity and fairness.” And when there’s a compelling reason that’s beyond a station owner’s control.
“We believe that the catastrophic nature of these events and the ongoing recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands warrants consideration of ‘equity and fairness” for those licensees that have been unable to resume station operations because of the damage caused by the hurricanes and the unusual extended recovery period, exacerbated by the difficulty in restoring electrical service to the islands,” the Media Bureau announced Thursday. The Bureau said it will give radio and television stations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands an additional six months to return to the airwaves with the clock starting Sept. 6, the date Hurricane Irma struck last year. That means stations will have until March 6, 2019 to return to broadcasting or risk having their license cancelled.
In order to receive the extra time, stations must file the necessary paperwork with the FCC. The Media Bureau said a station must file a request for Special Temporary Authority to remain silent. The STA request must also include which specific factors have prevented a station from getting back on the air, and a projected date when the owner thinks they’ll be able to sign-on. “The Commission will not entertain requests to extend or reinstate an expired license from licensees that have not filed a Silent STA Request prior to the end of their 12 full months of silence,” the Bureau warned.
In a report on the 2017 hurricane season released last week, the FCC said Hurricane Maria had the greatest impact of the storms that struck the U.S. last year. “Downed broadcasting antennas, lack of power, a dearth of resources, destroyed telephone poles, and similar factors, combined to devastate communications on Puerto Rico and the USVI for months,” it said. That pain lingered. The report said last December, several weeks after Maria made landfall, roughly one-third of AM and FM radio stations on Puerto Rico remained out-of-service while in the Virgin Islands only two AM and two FM radio stations were confirmed functioning. And while some stations have gotten back on their feet, many others haven’t.
In the meantime a joint office that the FCC opened in San Juan, PR alongside the Federal Emergency Management Agency remains open to this date. The FCC for weeks had three staffers deployed to the office, and as the recovery effort continues, one agency staffer remains on the ground for one week each month. “This deployment is expected to continue for another twelve months,” the report said.
Read the FCC’s full report on the 2017 hurricane season HERE.