Station break: Educational broadcasters can get some relief from the FCC — but only if they let students run the show

College broadcast stations that commit minor paperwork lapses, such as failure to keep a complete licensure file on-site for public inspection, have been socked with fines as high as $9,000 in recent years — fines that can exceed the annual operating budget for the entire station. Finally, some relief is on the way.

The Federal Communications Commission’s “forfeiture schedule” (the way it calculates fines) is based on the size of the holder of the FCC license. That is almost always the college itself, not the sub-unit that operates the station. So a college radio station scraping by on $10,000 a year might end up paying a forfeiture based on the parent college’s $40 million budget.

But last Monday, the FCC came out with a new interpretation that will enable first-time violators to escape with “consent agreements,” paying small “voluntary” contributions rather than fines. The policy applies only to “documentation requirements” and not to substantive violations of FCC rules, such as broadcasting indecent material.

The turnabout came in a case against Iowa’s William Penn University, which was at risk of a $20,000 fine — more than three times the station’s annual operating budget — for failing to maintain up-to-date public files. Instead, the station was allowed to pay $2,500 and agree to a compliance plan.

In the order, the Commission took note of the “daunting fiscal challenges” that have led colleges to sell off their FCC licensed operations, at a cost of lost programming diversity and learning opportunities. The order acknowledged the unique challenges that student-run stations face in meeting their licensure obligations:

Student volunteers at these stations are young and unlikely to have had any work experience in regulatory compliance matters, particularly those involving the FCC requirements to which [educational] stations are subject. As students leave the school or assume other responsibilities that conflict with their time devoted to station activities, new student volunteers must be recruited and trained on an ongoing basis by the remaining students, often without any professional oversight other than that provided by faculty advisors.

What’s crucial about the FCC’s new forgiveness policy is that it applies only to stations that are entirely student-programmed and student-managed. To qualify for first-time-offender leniency, the station must employ no programming professionals other than a faculty adviser.

This is a compelling pocketbook argument in favor of student editorial control. It may be a difficult swallow for colleges, which often hesitate to relinquish programming discretion to students, since the owner of the license (generally the college’s board of trustees) has ultimate legal responsibility for regulatory violations.

The FCC has now expressed a clear preference for letting students make their own programming decisions. Consistent with that preference, the Commission should take the next step, as part of its ongoing reexamination of indecency enforcement standards, and extend comparable leniency to noncommercial educational stations run by students that broadcast the occasional four-letter-word during prime listening hours.