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NY Times attempts to view broadcasters’ public inspection files, encounters confusion and resistance

file cabinet

Spurred on by the FCC’s proposal to create an online public inspection file for television broadcasters, reporter Meredith Hoffman at the New York Times decided to check out the paper public files at a variety of New York City broadcasters, both TV and radio. Not surprisingly, but still disappointingly, the reporter encountered puzzled receptionists and staff at many studios, but not much cooperation.

The staff at the Clear Channel cluster “chided a reporter for trying to enter without an appointment and insisted she arrange a time at least one day in advance,” while the receptionist at the Emmis Communications office for two stations took down the reporter’s contact information, but nobody from the company followed up. Even representatives of NBC owned-and-operated WNBC-TV put the reporter off for a week, only complying with the request to see the file after a call to corporate. Apparently Comcast-NBC hasn’t learned anything from the $225,000 it paid to the FCC for failing to provide sufficient public access to the file at other stations.

As its name would imply, the whole point of the public inspection file is that it is supposed to be available for the public to come in and inspect. The FCC requires that it be accessible during normal business hours, without having to make an appointment. Inside the file are documentation of a station’s public service programming, copies of its license and ownership reports and other items relevant to a station’s authorization to broadcast and observance of the public trust. As the Times article plays for levity, stations are also required to keep copies of correspondence from the public in the file.

While the complaints of a viewer who wrote a station regarding a news person’s attire may make the public file seem trivial, the fact is the majority of the file’s contents are not so trivial. Even reading comments from other viewers or listeners may in fact provide a fuller picture about ongoing or persistent problems at the station. While many broadcasters whine about the burden of maintaining the public inspection file, when you take into consideration the fact that most of them pay absolutely nothing for their valuable license to broadcast it hardly seems like much of a burden at all.

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