Holding the Government Accountable

POGO Joins in Asking FCC to Reform Radio Political Ad Info

POGO joined ten other groups yesterday in asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to consider a rule that will make it much easier and more efficient to track spending on radio campaign ads. The comment was authored by the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, and the Sunlight Foundation.

Radio licensees, like television systems, are required to maintain public inspection files that include: FCC authorizations, donor lists for non-commercial educational channels, ownership reports, and a political file. A licensee’s political file includes information related to advertising time purchased by political candidates and has been traditionally maintained only in physical copy. FCC regulations required that radio and television systems keep the public files, including the political files, at their main studio. However, the FCC began testing an online system of public file maintenance two years ago, starting with broadcast television stations and working in two phases.

On August 2, 2012, the FCC launched the first phase of the online public inspection file. The first phase required broadcast television stations to upload all previous public file documents, except for the political file, to the online database within six months and to upload any new files as created. Additionally, the top four national television broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox) were required to upload all of their political file documents to the online database starting on August 2, 2012. The second phase started on July 1, 2014, and required all other television broadcast stations to begin uploading their political files to the online database. As of July 1, 2014, all television broadcast stations had successfully made the transition to maintaining the online public file. Shortly after the first two phases were completed, the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, and the Sunlight Foundation petitioned for a rulemaking to expand the successful program to cable and satellite television stations. The FCC responded by opening a public comment period and voluntarily expanding the requests for comments to include whether to initiate a similar rulemaking procedure for radio licensees.

By extending the posting requirement to cover radio systems, the FCC can provide a convenient way for the public to access a “complete picture of political ad spending in a market,” according to the comment submitted yesterday. Although the public can freely access the physical public files, the number of radio stations in a single market makes it increasingly impractical to obtain an accurate picture of political ad spending. The comment details the rise in political spending on radio ads, further illustrating the importance of making those records practically available to the public. That availability is a big step in moving towards a more transparent electoral process. POGO thanks the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, and the Sunlight Foundation for advocating this important issue.