FCC 2016

One of the first actions set for consideration by the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission is likely a vote to ease regulations on radio and television stations. At its meeting later this month, the first with the new GOP majority, the Commission will vote on whether to eliminate the 43-year-old requirement mandating broadcasters to keep hard copies of emails and letters sent to the station in their public inspection file. The FCC in the past had cited privacy concerns for requiring such communication be kept out of the online public file database, but it has said it now believes the legacy paper requirement does little to ensure broadcasters are serving the public interest.

The National Association of Broadcasters has applauded the idea, saying it will “reduce the regulatory burdens” on commercial broadcasters while keeping up with 21st century communications. “The public no longer relies solely on paper letters or phone calls to express opinions about local broadcast stations,” the NAB says in a filing with the agency. “Consumers today are far more likely to use social media or other online forums to communicate their views, which are more publicly available than paper letters or email printouts tucked into a station’s local paper public inspection file.”

Many broadcasters say there are remarkably few visitors asking to review station public inspection files and those who do show up at a station are typically there to review the political file, not letters and emails sent from listeners. In comments with the FCC, Saga Communications says it surveyed general managers in the 26 markets where it operates and not a single cluster had any member of the public visiting the station during the past five years, asking to review the local correspondence file.

Pointing out the mandate was adopted in 1973, long before the internet gave the public ways such as Facebook and Twitter to converse with a station, Saga says in a filing that it cannot perceive any benefits to retaining the local correspondence in the public file. “After 43 years of progress, the Commission should acknowledge that the rule has outlived its usefulness and eliminate it,” the company says.

Yet while the paper dictate may be about to disappear, New England station owner Bob Bittner thinks listener correspondence should remain off the web, seeing it as a violation of the letter writers’ privacy. “Once it gets around to the public, that whatever they write to a station will be subject to anyone’s viewing, many, if not most people will refrain from communicating with the station,” he predicts. “Therefore, stations would receive much less important feedback from listeners.”

A joint filing by 48 state broadcaster associations has raised several similar arguments. They point out the use of such social media platforms makes stations “immediately and publicly responsible for their programming decisions,” thereby making a requirement to keep letters and email printouts “anachronistic, antiquated and fundamentally meaningless.” The state associations also say that eliminating the requirement will incentivize stations outside the top 50 markets with fewer than five employees to voluntarily make the jump to posting their public inspection online ahead of the March 2018 deadline.

But not everyone supports the idea. The National Hispanic Media Coalition thinks the FCC should retain the paper file requirement, arguing that the correspondence folder is often the “most informative” folder in a public file. “NHMC has used correspondence found in the public file to inform grassroots campaigns to hold broadcasters accountable for hate speech over the public airwaves,” the group said in comments with the agency.

Among those who also believe the public comments should remain just where they are is Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture & Media Studies in Washington DC. Howard—owner of urban AC WHUR-FM (96.3)—has said it believes the FCC should even require stations to do more “to make listeners and viewers aware that they are entitled to view such records,” casting it as part of broadcasters’ public interest obligations.

Howard has been an outlier in the debate, however, with most broadcasters siding with the NAB which has argued that forcing stations to post some of their public inspection file online and keep other parts in a filing cabinet raises compliance costs while proving “little to no benefit” to the public.

The FCC will vote on the change on Jan. 31 when it appears just three commissioners—Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly and Democrat Mignon Clyburn—will remain. Current FCC chair Tom Wheeler has said he will resign from the agency Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.