Whether it’s weather-related damage, equipment failures or even economic hardship, a variety of legitimate reasons are to blame for some situations. But frustrated with owners who may be gaming its rules, the Federal Communications Commission is cracking down on those stations that spend so little time on the air that listeners often don’t even realize it’s an active frequency in their market.
Audio Division chief Peter Doyle says “several dozen” stations “at best have operated intermittently” during their license terms, often signing on for just a matter of one day or even a few hours as a “workaround” to the rule that says a license automatically expires after a year not on the air. While in the past the Commission has looked the other way, a new crackdown means many of those owners will now be required to go through a hearing process to determine whether they should be given a new seven-year license term.
WRAX, Lake Isabella, MI (98.9) is the first station to be put up for review. The FCC says owner Radioactive, a company run by veteran broadcaster Randy Michaels, was only on the air for seven days since its license was first granted in 2010. Now its fate is in the balance as the Commission voted on Thursday to put to a hearing whether WRAX would get a new license. “Radioactive has asked the FCC to renew its license, but I’m not sure that we should,” FCC chair Ajit Pai said. “It’s hard to say that the station has served the public interest if it’s only been on the air one day of the year during its license term.”
Radioactive told the FCC last week it expects WRAX to resume broadcasting in the near future as it “continues to work towards refining and implementing a business plan to ensure the financial viability of the station.” That, however, is the same message the company has presented to the Commission since 2012. Radioactive’s attorney did not have any immediate comment on the FCC’s decision.
A Bigger Hammer Over Broadcasters
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she’s glad to see new procedures adopted that address the no-questions-asked license renewal process, which she points out former commissioner Michael Copps long railed against during his tenure. Instead of relying on a process that uses the threat of monetary fines, shortened license terms or compliance plans, Clyburn said the threat of the ultimate punishment—license revocation—should do more to ensure stations are serving their community. “I look forward to considering additional reforms,” she added.
Clyburn said silent stations are especially frustrating since not a month goes by that someone without a radio station tells her their dream is to break into ownership. “Their largest impediment is usually access to capital, but another is the inability to secure an available license,” Clyburn said. “So when a broadcast license holder is unable or unwilling to meet their obligations to their community, it is high time that the FCC act to ensure that someone else who has the desire and the ability can and will.” The National Association of Broadcasters had no comment on the FCC’s new license renewal strategy.
Unlike earlier hearings, WRAX—which at last check was still off the air—will not go before one of the FCC’s administrative law judges. Instead, its case will be directly reviewed by the commissioners. But rather than a courtroom-like proceeding they’ll assess the renewal in what’s known as a “paper hearing.” Speaking at the Commission’s monthly meeting, Pai said the “streamlined process” should help cut the backlog of pending applications.
“The message the FCC is sending to broadcast licensees today is clear,” Pai said. “Broadcast stations must serve the public interest, and they must provide service to their local community.”