FCC 375

It is the owner of a translator that matters more than the programming on the station, according to a decision by the Federal Communications Commission that could save some broadcasters regulatory fees.

The case is centered on a Birmingham, AL market FM translator owned by Educational Media Foundation. The Graysville, AL-licensed translator W293CM at 106.5 FM operates in the commercial band and under a deal between EMF and iHeartMedia the signal does not carry programming from the religious broadcaster. Instead, iHeart in 2015 created an adult R&B format branded as “B-106.5” relaying the HD3 channel of “News Radio 105.5” WERC-FM.

That led to an objection to the translator’s license renewal filed by Triangle Access Broadcasting which alleged EMF was improperly claiming a noncommercial exemption from paying application fees since 2014. It also argued EMF should not qualify for application or regulatory fee exemptions based on its nonprofit status because it allows the Birmingham translator to be used for for-profit purposes. Rather than giving EMF a new license, Triangle Access Broadcasting instead said the FCC should allow the translator’s license to expire – or the FCC should place “appropriate conditions” on a renewal.

In a response, EMF said that it paid all the required application fees, and it remains exempt from paying regulatory fees because it is a federally designated nonprofit entity. It also offered to pay the FCC any previously required fees that were overlooked. But based on a decision released Tuesday, EMF does not need to worry about writing any checks.

Audio Division Chief Albert Shuldiner affirmed that to determine whether a translator is classified as noncommercial or not, the FCC looks at whether its primary station is noncommercial or not. In the case of W293CM that would be iHeart’s commercial WERC-FM. But Shuldiner said a separate exemption in the FCC rules is based on the nonprofit status of the licensee rather than the station. In this case, EMF is a not-for-profit that does not need to pay any regulatory fees for the translator. He also said the question of whether the operation of a for-profit translator impacts an entity’s nonprofit status is a matter that is left up to the IRS. And as for any application fees due, Shuldiner said there were none still outstanding.

For noncommercial stations, the FCC decision could open new opportunities for leasing their translators without worrying about facing new regulatory fees – as long as the broadcaster is a verifiable not-for-profit.