FCC 375

As radio gears up for an onslaught of political advertising in the coming months, a move by the Federal Communications Commission is as much a warning to the industry as it is a resolution to a series of investigations involving some of radio’s biggest owners. The Media Bureau has reached settlements with six large groups which it determined failed to comply with rules that require stations to upload to their online public inspection files records of any requests for the purchase of political broadcast time.

The settlements are with Alpha Media, Beasley Media Group, Cumulus Media, Entercom, iHeartMedia and Salem Media Group. No fines are involved, but each of the companies has agreed to adopt compliance plans to ensure stations meet their political file obligations going forward at the 1,884 stations the six companies collectively own across the country.

The violations were in self-reported shortcomings by the all of the companies during February and March, except for Entercom, which had been under review since a candidate filed a complaint over three Buffalo, NY stations in December 2018. The Media Bureau’s subsequent investigation determined the six owners had repeatedly failed to comply with their political file obligations.

The attention to the issue has already begun to pay off, according to the FCC. In the months since the Media Bureau flagged the issue, it said the groups have met their reporting requirements, despite the reality that many employees are now working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bureau also pointed to the “unique conditions” brought about by the pandemic as a reason not to issue monetary fines against the broadcasters.

“We recognize that this period has placed the radio broadcast industry as a whole under significant financial stress from a dramatic reduction in advertising revenues,” said the consent decrees with each of the companies.

As part of their agreements with the FCC, the six group owners have each committed to adopting internal reforms. As part of their consent decrees, each of the companies will implement compliance plans at every radio station and submit detailed compliance reports to the Media Bureau through at least December 2021, confirming all information was timely uploaded to each station’s online political file.

“It is critical that information about political advertising is transparent to the public and candidates for office,” Media Bureau Chief Michelle Carey said in a statement. “Adherence to the requirements in the consent decrees will ensure compliance with the online political file rules during this election year.”

Under federal law, stations are required to place information about each request for the purchase of broadcast time for all candidate-sponsored advertisements and certain issue advertisements in their political files for public inspection “as soon as possible.” The FCC rules also require that information to be made available for public inspection “as soon as possible,” barring any unusual circumstances, to ensure that the public has timely access to important information about political advertisements, such as the identity of the sponsoring organization.

The agreements mean that each of the companies will now be able to have various pending applications with the FCC move forward after the political file investigation threw up a roadblock to their processing. That includes hundreds of pending license renewal applications.