In exchange for using the public airwaves for free, broadcast stations are required to serve their local community, a condition the FCC refers to as a station’s “public-interest obligations.” The standards for what counts towards satisfying these obligations used to be quite considerable, but currently, the chief requirement is that a station maintain a “public inspection file,” and make it available to any member of the public that asks. In the file, stations are required to keep information including a political advertising log and a list of the community-serving programming the station has recently aired.
Starting in 2010, in the context of the FCC’s Future of Media Inquiry, the New America Foundation’s Media Policy Initiative began asking members of the public for help in collecting these public files and posting them on the Internet. Now, with the FCC’s recent proposal to require broadcasters to post the files online—and with TV stations’ adamant opposition to the proposal—the New America Foundation has reenergized its crowdsourcing campaign. Alysia Santo recently spoke with NAF media policy fellow Tom Glaisyer about the project.
What has stood out the most about the public interest files the NAF has collected so far?
The banality of what is listed as “programming that serves the local community.” For example, one of the stations, WRDC-TV, in Raleigh, North Carolina, has ten items under each week’s report that are listed as fulfilling their community programming obligations. For the week of February 10th in 2010 (PDF), two of the items refer to the same thing. One reads: “The Doritos ‘underdog’ commercial won the national ad competition for Frito Lay.” The next reads: “Josh Svoboda a Raleigh ad producer won over $600,000 for his Doritos commercial.”
A similar occurrence happens on the next week’s list, for February 17th. One of the items reads: “Jeff Ondash broke the record for giving the most hugs in 24 hours” and the next item reads: “Ondash holds the record for the most hugs in one hour.” These are two of the 10 items they list that they’ve broadcast as serving the community’s public interest. It really makes you wonder if there was an 11th. Jeff Ondash is not even a Raleigh resident, but rather was from Ohio and set this record in Las Vegas.
What’s the latest on the FCC’s proposal to move these files online?
The FCC is still considering what it’s going to do in its rule making. The period for collecting public comments has formally ended, but people can still submit, and some of the recent filings include a “Notice of Ex Parte Communication” from the National Association of Broadcasters on March 12. It’s a letter to the FCC, emphasizing that the NAB opposes including their political file as part of the online file requirement because it could have potential “anticompetitive effects” if their advertising rate information is online. The thing is, the statute already requires them to make this information available, so they are arguing that they would be exposed by something that is already supposed to be public information.
You’ve gone out and collected some of these files from the local news stations. What was that process like? (CJR, too, has accessed and explored files in five states; read about our experiences here.)
I walked in, I asked the receptionist for the public files, and they directed me to a filing cabinet and offered to photocopy the items I wanted to take away. I paid 25 cents for each copy. It was very straightforward. They did end up asking me why I wanted the files, and I said it was because I work on media policy issues. But I think they were more surprised that I was there on December 23rd than anything else. I was on vacation in Hawaii, and figured I would get some public files while I was there.
When you were at these stations, did you ever ask if the individual stations themselves oppose this information being online?
I didn’t. I’m guided by their responses to the FCC docket, and there seems to be a bizarre resistance to moving to the 21st-century norms of transparency. The stations argue that it would take more effort to scan something than to photocopy it and put it in a file. In a way, it would actually be less of a burden to put it online versus having it in the filing cabinet, because then they wouldn’t have to deal with any visitors.
What are your hopes for this project?
We’re looking to act as an aggregation tool for those people who are visiting stations. Since [last week was] Sunshine Week, which is a national initiative to promote freedom of information, I’m hoping this inspires people to go out and gather these documents. People have told me they are out there collecting these, and we are expecting to get a bunch of files in the coming weeks. A project called the Community Media Database has organized a map of the files we’ve collected at the NAF so far, which we’ve embedded on our site, so its easy to see which stations we’ve collected from, and which ones we still need files from.
If the FCC doesn’t move forward and make it mandatory for broadcasters to put these online, than this type of crowdsourcing initiative is an alternative way to make this information more easily available. Making something public, these days, means putting it online.Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR.