Guide to FCC license renewal requirements

Operating a college radio station can be a fun learningexperience where budding broadcasters have the opportunity to cut their teethbefore entering major media markets. With opportunity, however, comesresponsibility.

Maintaining a broadcast facility requires paperwork – a lotof it. Failure to keep up with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)requirements can lead to steep fines, sometimes as much as $10,000. In recentyears, college stations have been cited on multiple occasions for violating twoFCC record-keeping requirements: Failing to maintain an adequate public file,and failure to timely renew the station’s license.

This legal guide will explain these two FCC requirements,and how station operators can minimize their risk of a costly fine.

Keeping a public file

When an educational broadcast licensee, which is generallythe university’s board of directors or university itself,1 seeksto renew its broadcast license, the station must submit FCC Form 303-S.2Section III, Item 3 of that form asks the applicant to certify that the stationhas kept a “public file” at the station during the previous license term.

A public file is a list of documents that every broadcasttelevision and radio station must keep on-hand and available for publicinspection during regular business hours.3Failure to follow the FCC’s public file rules may result in a fine – which theCommission calls a “forfeiture order.”4

In 2009, WEAX(FM), which was licensed to Tri-StateUniversity in Angola, Indiana, was ordered to pay $9,000 after admitting that thestation did not maintain all of the information that the FCC requires to be ina public file.5The FCC did not find it relevant whether anyone had ever attempted to inspectthe file, stating that failure to maintain the required documents “diminishesthe public’s ability to determine andcomment on whether the station is serving the community.”6

Moreover, the penalty levied was not reduced because WEAXwas a noncommercial, educational station that would have a hard time paying anFCC fine. When determining how much to fine a broadcast station for FCCviolations, the Commission will only consider the finances of the licensee,which is normally the university, and not the finances of the station.7 Itwould be difficult for a university to claim that a four-figure fine wouldcause undue financial hardship, even if it is clear that any fine will be takendirectly out of the broadcast station’s operations budget.

Additionally, when assessing forfeiture orders, the FCC willnot take mercy on a station because it is noncommercial. It is the FCC’s policythat “there is no proposed forfeiture exemption or reduction based on thenoncommercial status of a station.”8(On occasion, it is possible to obtain some forgiveness if the station’s recordis clear of violations, as with WEAX, which was able to get its penalty reducedto $7,200.)

With unforgiving penalties awaiting the station that is notto keep a public file, it is important to know exactly what documents aneducational radio or TV station must have on hand. The FCC’s public file rulesare embodied in FCC rules 73.35269for commercial stations and 73.352710for noncommercial educational stations. These rules do not apply to Low PowerFM and Low Power television stations. The FCC offers a brief description of a station’sresponsibilities on its website,11but a general explanation of what a noncommercial educational station must keepin its public file follows:

What must be in thepublic file?

  • A copy of the current FCC authorization tooperate and construct the broadcast station.
  • A copy of any filed FCC application, relateddocuments, opposition to the application served upon the broadcast station, andthe Commission’s response to those applications.
  • Service contour maps submitted with an FCCapplication showing the location of a station’s main studio, transmitterlocation street address.
  • The station’s ownership reports (FCC Form323-E), which are due on the first anniversary of licensure and then ever twoyears thereafter.
  • Documents concerning broadcasts by candidatesfor public office.
  • Documents relating to the station’s EqualEmployment Opportunity policy.
  • The most recent version of an FCC manual, titled“The Public and Broadcasting.”12
  • For television stations, a copy of a completed“Standardized Public Interest Reporting Form.” This form must detail thestation’s efforts to determine the issues facing its community and the programmingaired during the preceding three-month period in response to those issues.
  • A list of donors supporting specific programs.
  • Local public notice announcements.
  • Documents relating to FCC investigations orcomplaints.
  • For television stations, copies of requests formandatory carriage on any cable system.
  • Some television stations must also retain a DTV ConsumerEducational Quarterly Activity Report (FCC Form 388), describing methods usedto educate the public about the industry-wide conversion from analog to digitaltelevision signal technology.13

Where must the publicfile be located?

  • A copy must be kept at the main studio of theradio station.
  • If a main studio is located outside of thestation’s broadcasting area, the station must mail the file to requestingindividuals within the service area.
  • A copy of the public file may either be in paperform or accessible on a computer database, as long as a computer is made availableto the public to access the database and the database can be printed upon request.
  • Television stations must also make the publicfile available on the station’s website or on the state broadcastersassociation’s website. If a television station chooses to put its public fileon a broadcaster association’s website, the station’s own website must link toit.

When must a copy ofthe public file be accessible to the public?

  • A copy of the file must be available duringregular business hours, either in hard copy or through a computer terminal.

Unauthorized operation of a radio station

Before a radio or television station can begin broadcasting,it must first obtain an operating frequency from the FCC. A station cannot “purchase”an operating frequency from the FCC, but rather must lease, or license, it fora set period of time. Generally, stations are licensed a broadcast frequencyfor renewable two-year periods.14

A broadcast station can renew its license by filing theappropriate paperwork with the FCC.15However, an application to renew a broadcast license must be submitted four months prior to a license’s expiration.16 Failureto apply for a license renewal will result in possible fines by the FCC, even ifthe mistake was unintentional or came as a result of a clerical error.17The FCC requires this four-month period in order to give the community anopportunity to comment on the station’s service and, if warranted, oppose thestation’s renewal application.18

Colby Community College, which operates the FM radio stationKTCC, failed to submit a license renewal application four months before thestation’s license was set to expire.19In letters to the FCC, the station’s radio broadcasting instructor noted thatthe oversight was the result of his “predecessor’s failure to document thelicense renewal process, as well as his own unfamiliarity with the [licenserenewal] process.” Given the personnel turnover that is sometime’s common witheducational broadcast operations, and the lack of training that personnelsometimes receive prior to taking over a broadcast facility, KTCC’s explanationwas not unique.20

Although KTCC’s operators did not know they had to file arenewal application four months prior to their license’s expiration, theCommission still found the station’s actions to be a “willful” violation of FCCrules. The FCC stated that rules violations “resulting from inadvertent erroror failure to become familiar with the FCC’s requirements are willfulviolations,” even if they were not purposeful. The FCC has stated that “theterm ’willful’ means that the violator knew that it was taking (or in thiscase, not taking) the action in question, irrespective of any intent to violatethe Rules.”21

Failing to renew a broadcast license will result in thatstation’s license lapsing. When a broadcast facility continues to operate on afrequency without a license from the FCC, it is operating an unauthorizedstation, which is a violation of FCC rules and will result in further fines.22

If a station has not submitted its renewal application formfour months prior to license expiration, the station can apply for SpecialTemporary Authority to broadcast on its frequency even after the licenseexpires. During this time period, the Commission will consider the station’srenewal application and the community’s comments about the station. SpecialTemporary Authority will not, however, excuse a station from a fine forviolating the FCC’s four-month renewal time period.

The FCC will grant a station special temporary authority “fora period of 180 days, but the applicant must show that extraordinarycircumstances warrant such an extension.”23 Requestsshould be filed electronically using FCC Form 601 Main Form, specifying thepurpose as “Renewal/Modification.” Once Special Temporary Authority has beengranted, a station may operate until the FCC has made a final decisionregarding the license renewal application or the authority expires.

Reminders forOperating a Broadcast Facility:

  • Make sure you know when your broadcast licenseexpires. If you cannot find the appropriate paperwork, you can use the FCC’swebsite to find the license expiration.
  • Complete and submit FCC Form 303-S at least four months prior to a broadcast license’s expiration.
  • Implement training for all station employeesregarding license renewal proceedures should there be a turnover in personnel.
  • If your broadcast license has expired, stopbroadcasting immediately.
  • If for some reason your broadcast license hasexpired and a new license has not been granted, apply for Special TemporaryAuthority to broadcast from the FCC.

While these requirements can at times appear bureaucraticand picky, the Commission takes them seriously, and a careless oversight canput a station’s survival at risk. A good source of information and advice forthose uncertain about FCC compliance requirements is the nonprofit organizationCollege Broadcasters, Inc., and its website,


  1. For example, 88.1 WKNC(FM) in Raleigh, N.C., a student-operated radio station, is licensed to North Carolina State University.
  2. Form 303-S is available at:
  3. A summary of the public file requirement is located on the FCC’s website:
  4. 47 C.F.R. § 1.80 (2010).
  5. In re Tri-State University, DA 09-930, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 28, 2009).
  6. Id. See Forfeiture Policy Statement, 12 FCC Rcd 17087, 17104-05 (1997).
  7. See In re Tri-State, DA 09-930 at *3; In re Colby Community College, DA 10-603, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 6, 2010); Wayne State College, 24 FCC Rcd 2484, Forfeiture Order (MB 2009); Washington and Lee University, 23 FCC Rcd 15821 (MB 2008). See also Discussion Radio, Inc, 19 FCC Rcd 7433, 7441, Memorandum Opinion and Order and Notice of Apparent Liability (2004).
  8. See In re Little Miami Local Schools, DA 10-598, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 6, 2010); Des Moines Independent Community School District, 24 FCC Rcd 2869, 2871, Memorandum Opinion and Order (MB 2009); Bible Broadcasting Network, Inc., 23 FCC Rcd 8743, Forfeiture Order, (MB 2008) (rejecting licensee’s argument that its forfeiture order should be reduced because of its noncommercial educational status; Lebanon Educational Broadcasting Foundation, 21 FCC Rcd 1442, 1446, Memorandum, Opinion and Order (EB 2006). little Miami school sfn 19.
  9. 47 C.F.R. § 73.3526 (2010), available at
  10. 47 C.F.R. § 73.3527 (2010), available at
  11. See
  14. To determine when a broadcast license expires, use the FCC’s Universal Licensing System search website,
  15. To renew a license, a licensee must submit FCC Form 303-S.
  16. 47 C.F.R. 73.1020, 73.3539(a) (2010).
  17. See Five Star Parking d/b/a/ Five Star Taxi Dispatch, 23 CC Rcd 2649, Forfeiture Order (EB 2008); PJB Communications of Virginia, Inc., 7 FCC Rcd 2088, Memorandum Opinion and Order (1992); Southern California Broadcasting Co., 6 FCC Rcd 4387, Memorandum Opinion and Order (1992); Standard Communications Corp., 1 FCC Rcd 358, Memorandum Opinion and Order (1986).
  18. The FCC’s license renewal process is briefly described on the FCC’s website:
  19. In re Colby Community College, DA 10-603, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 6, 2010).
  20. See Little Miami Local Schools, DA 10-598, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 6, 2010); Educational Media Foundation, 23 FCC Rcd 15366, Letter (MB 2006).
  21. See, e.g., In re Board of Trustees, Davis & Elkins College, DA 09-988, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 28, 2009).
  22. See In re Colby Community College, DA 10-603, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 6, 2010); In re Board of Trustees, Davis & Elkins College, DA 09-988, Forfeiture Order (Rel. April 28, 2009).
  23. The FCC’s rules regarding Special Temporary Authority can be found on the FCC’s website: