iHeartMedia station doors

Fewer offices with fewer employees could be the net result of a proposal circulating inside the Federal Communications Commission. The agency has been considering whether to ease radio’s Main Studio Rule ever since the AM revitalization proceeding began two years ago. Now a law firm that works with several media companies has formally petitioned the Commission to repeal the regulation for all radio and television stations.

Garvey Schubert Barer’s (GSB) Media, Telecom and Technology Group says doing away with the Main Studio Rule won’t reduce broadcasters’ “bedrock obligation” to serve the local community. “Instead, it is meant to recognize the technological and economic realities of today’s broadcast marketplace—that stations can serve their communities while realizing substantial and necessary cost savings by maintaining fewer offices and smaller staff,” the firm writes in its petition.

It goes on to say that most Americans reach out to local stations by telephone, email, social media or mail, making the need for a local office for someone to walk in the door to raise their concerns or ask questions a relic of the past. And with the FCC moving radio and TV station public inspection files to a centralized FCC-hosted online database, GSB says it only further undermines any rationale for maintaining a physical main studio location. In January the FCC removed one of the last vestiges of the paper trail when it voted to eliminate the 44-year-old requirement mandating commercial broadcasters to keep hard copies of emails and letters sent to the station in their public inspection file. “The Commission has eliminated most, if not all, of the other primary justifications for the Main Studio Rule,” GSB says.

The Main Studio Rule has already been chipped away in recent decades ever since the FCC decided in 1987 that a station must originate a certain percentage of its non-network programming from the main studio. Then in 1998 amidst a wave of consolidation the Commission enlarged the geographic area from which a main studio could be located to allow multi-station clusters to combine under one roof. In recent years the FCC opened the door to further modifying the rule saying it could be putting a “financial strain on many AM broadcasters.”

GSB argues the “anachronistic” regulation remains a source of “substantial cost” for station owners—especially small stations that have “very limited recourses” to comply with minimum operation and staffing requirements. “Technology and consolidation have progressed to the point where a broadcaster can deliver responsive local programming without the economic drain of maintaining a main studio within an arbitrary geographic area,” the firm writes in the seven-page petition. It goes on to say that the FCC will also save administrative costs if it does away with the rule since it will no longer need to spend time analyzing waiver requests.

FCC chair Ajit Pai hasn’t explicitly announced whether he’d support abolishing the rule outright, but he has repeatedly said he supports modernizing the agency’s regulations. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly however has left little doubt where he stands. He called the Main Studio Rule “outdated and unnecessary,” saying it “should be eliminated or severely modified” during a speech to the Hispanic Radio Conference last month in Fort Lauderdale. “While the requirement can be waived for good cause, and often is waived for noncommercial stations, these waivers are hardly ever granted to commercial ones,” O’Rielly said. “It’s time to take another look at our approach to collocation proposals.”

The Media Bureau is believed to already be evaluating the Main Studio Rule’s future as part of its ongoing AM revitalization initiative. Pai has said he’s most likely to act first on items which have broad support. GSB’s petition could be a mechanism to test how much consensus there is for abolishing the rule.