Public records Policing the airwaves 

What lurks in a station's public file?

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It isn't well-known, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that television and radio stations provide a public file listing their public service announcements, and programming - including public interest and children's educational shows - minority hiring information, viewer comments, and political advertising invoices.

The purpose of this file is to ostensibly allow citizens a means of policing the stations. The "Public and Broadcasting Manual, 1999" notes that since the FCC can't monitor all broadcasts, "viewers and listeners are a vital source of information about the programming and possible rule violations." Yet, Kathy Grant, an advocate at Common Cause in Washington, D.C., says that unless the public innundates the station with complaints, "the FCC doesn't do anything with regard to public interests now," merely "rubber-stamping" license renewals.

To view a file, you must visit the station during regular business hours, and it is advisable to make an appointment.

You will likely be escorted to a large filing cabinet and be offered a desk and chair to review the materials. You can request photocopies, though large orders can take up to a week. WOAI charges 25 cents a page, but KENS provided copies for free.

Here is a glimpse of the stations' file contents:

Children's Television Programming Reports outline programming that serves the "educational and informational needs of children 16 and under," and ensures compliance with the Children's Television Act prohibiting more than 10 1/2 minutes of commercials per hour on weekends, or 12 minutes on weekdays. Program descriptions, their time slots, and goals of "socio-emotional development" are also given.

The Howard Stern file at KENS holds nearly six inches of petitions and letters requesting his show not be picked up by the network; it wasn't.
A list of public interest programming is filed quarterly and offers a glimpse of what television stations view as important issues in the community. Although none of the stations had completed 2003's fourth-quarter report, quarters dating back two years are required to be on file. WOAI, KVDA, and KRRT had easy-to-locate statements describing community issues. KRRT's "Ascertainment list for third quarter, 2003" included: community, crime, drug abuse, economy/employment, education, environment, health care, transportation, and youth. Beyond newscasts, which stations often use to fill their public interest quota, community issues and public service announcements have scant presence, with only the Spanish-language stations KWEX and KVDA offering clear descriptions. KVDA aired local and national announcements of "Latino issues," such as adult education and family values, and others against crime and substance abuse. KWEX promoted volunteer and charity organizations.

Letters and e-mail from the public are accompanied by little or no information on responses or solutions to the problems. Complaints ranged from annoyed viewers rankled by Spanish-language errors and idiosyncracies of news anchors, to appeals to pre-empt controversial programming. The Howard Stern file at KENS holds nearly six inches of petitions and letters requesting his show not be picked up by the network; it wasn't. The "lesbian kiss" episode of All My Children was, however, aired on WOAI with a statement from the show's creator, Agnes Nixon, saying the soap opera is trying to challenge viewers to be "bound to each other by our common humanity despite our many personal differences."

As for annual employment records and Equal Employment Opportunities information, only WOAI offered thorough information regarding recruitment sources, interviews, and applicants. Other stations either had an empty file stating there are no new positions for the quarter, or had placed their file in Human Resources (KENS). In 2001, a U.S. Court of Appeals suspended the requirement that stations keep annual EEO public file reports. KSAT had a memo dated January 2003 from its corporate owner, Washington Post Co., noting that "the new FCC guidelines emphasize efforts more than numbers ... to increase our black population." An aside in the e-mail noted the low African-American workforce population in San Antonio, but that the station "could be in compliance with just a few more hires."

Political files at all stations include a contract guaranteeing the person has formally declared his or her candidacy, the campaign name, when the commercials were aired, and the price for each time spot and total charge. No information is given on the content of the advertisement.

Ownership reports, FCC investigations, and FCC contracts, among other documents, are also on file. Check the FCC guidelines at www.fcc.gov for tools to understanding and inspecting the files.


More by Abraham Mahshie

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