Fundamentals of Radio Broadcasting: The Station License

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There are many kinds of licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission. You may have received a CB (citizens' band) license or perhaps even an amateur (shortwave) license. With either one of these two types you would be able to talk directly to another person by radio.

This is called direct address or point-to-point communication and is illegal for the operator of a broadcasting station. Broadcast means that the messages sent are designed to be received by the general public rather than by a specific person, and for this reason the holder of a broadcast license must meet certain requirements and fulfill certain responsibilities.

When the FCC issues to you a radio broadcaster's license, you be come the custodian of a valuable piece of public property. If you have a commercial license you are allowed to use your facilities to make a profit for the owners and stockholders, but you must also serve the public inter est. The Commission is very clear on this point and stresses in several sections of Rules and Regulations that a broadcaster must operate in the "public interest, convenience and necessity." You may not go into the broadcasting business solely on the basis of speculation. For example, you are not permitted to sell the station for a profit until you have held the license at least 3 years. In addition, you are expected to devote a portion of your broadcast time to public service programs and spot announcements.

Making the Application

In order to receive a license for a commercial or noncommercial radio broadcasting station you must file application for a construction permit with the Federal Communications Commission. This is an application that says you have made an engineering study of the area where you wish the station to be located and have found a frequency within the broad cast band where your operation would not interfere with the transmission of any existing station. This part of the application requires extensive technical skills and equipment; it is a job usually performed by a consulting firm that specializes in this type of work. There are several criteria you have to meet.

1. The application itself must be signed by a person who is qualified to become chief engineer of the station and who will give assurance that the licensee will operate the station within the required technical parameters.

2. You have to reveal your financial resources and give evidence that you can afford to purchase the necessary equipment and maintain operation for a reasonable period of time.

3. You have to meet all the legal qualifications of a licensee, such as being a citizen of the United States with no felony convictions.

4. You have to give evidence that the community you wish to serve needs and desires the kind of programming you propose to offer. In other words you must show that the station will serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." The last qualification is the most nebulous. How does one determine public interest, convenience, and necessity? In filing an application you would have to fill out form 301, section IV-A. Part one of this form reads as follows:

A-State in Exhibit No. the methods used by the applicant to ascertain the needs and interests of the public served by the station. Such information shall include (1) identification of representative groups, interests and organizations which were consulted, and (2) the major communities or areas which applicant principally undertakes to serve.

B-Describe in Exhibit No. the significant needs and interests of the public which the applicant believes his station will serve during the coming license period, including those with respect to national and international matters.

C-List in Exhibit No. typical and illustrative programs or pro gram series (excluding Entertainment and News) that applicant plans to broadcast during the coming license period to meet those needs and inter ests.

The FCC does not expect that you will adhere to the stated programming schedule without change for the entire license period. How ever, when your license comes up for renewal, you will have to show what your program schedule was for a composite week. From that, the FCC will determine whether or not you have lived up to the spirit of your original application.

Frank J. Kahn, Documents of American Broadcasting, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice -Hall, 1973), pp. 316-325.

Ascertainment of Community Needs

In the past the section of the application regarding ascertainment of community needs had been treated rather lightly. But in recent years this has begun to change. There are not so many radio channels available as there used to be. In fact, in some areas there is no room for any more stations at all. Consequently there have been more challenges of licenses.

When a license comes up for renewal, public notification must be made to that effect. Anyone wishing to complain about the performance of a station may do so. Furthermore, another party may challenge the owner's right to the license on grounds that a public service was not adequately performed. Licensees have therefore been forced to become more concerned about discovering community needs, and are making more conscientious surveys. In some cases even small stations have be gun hiring public affairs directors to fulfill this responsibility. This, incidentally, might be a good opportunity for you to create a job opening for yourself. The first step would be to get hold of a copy of the Ascertainment Primer issued by the FCC in 1971. It answers some of the questions regarding methods of ascertaining community problems, needs, and interests. You would have to contact community leaders and ask how your station can be of service. Colleges, for example, may wish to have courses broadcast over the air; law enforcement agencies may want to advise people how to protect themselves from crime; local government may desire that you generate an interest in political affairs; cultural organizations such as symphony orchestras and art galleries might want publicity about their activities. In making these inquiries you not only perform a public service, but also acquire ideas for new and interesting programs.

In addition to talking to community leaders, the FCC says a station must ascertain the needs of the general public. The survey must represent a proportional sample of the community. On this subject, the Ascertainment Primer states as follows:

A professional service would not establish a dialogue between decision making personnel in the applicant and community leaders. Therefore, such a service may not be used to consult community leaders. However, a professional service . . . may be used to conduct consultations with the general public. A professional service may also be used to provide the applicant with background data, including information as to the composition of the city of license. The use of a professional research or survey service is not required to meet Commission standards as to ascertaining community problems. The applicant will be responsible for the reliability of such a service.

Most commercial stations subscribe at some time to professional survey services. While they are considered accurate in determining the demographics of an audience and what they have been listening to, they can not be considered reliable predictors of what people would listen to if certain kinds of programs were offered. It may be necessary to experiment with programs to see how they are received. This is risky for a commercial station, and seldom are sweeping changes made in a pro gram format that has been financially successful. It is more likely that stations will fulfill their obligations by inserting short programs or announcements into their regular format. Unfortunately these are often "buried" in the least desirable time periods.

Commercial Announcements

The FCC makes certain specific stipulations for the programming of commercial announcements. The most important rule is that all announcements for which a station is paid must contain clear sponsor identification. In other words, when the public is being persuaded, they have a right to know who is persuading them. Stations have received very stiff fines for failing to live up to this rule. It is the copywriter's job to see that the name of the sponsor is written into the commercial, and the traffic director's job to see that it appears in the log. Your job as combo opera tor would be to read the copy as written and log the time that you did so.

Never read a commercial without logging it, and never log one without reading it.

There are questions that come up in regard to this rule. What about records that music distributors give to radio stations? The FCC does not require you to announce the name of the record company every time you play a song. This is considered to be a legitimate exchange in the broad casting business as long as the station or the disk jockey does not receive any additional compensation for playing the record. Another exception would be the announcing of entertainment activities such as plays, concerts, and sporting events. This is all right to do in the context of news presented in the public interest. But again, the station or disk jockey must not receive any monetary compensation for doing this unless the announcement is logged and recorded as a commercial message. Some times a radio station will air an announcement that is referred to in the business as a trade -out. This means that the sponsor is not paying the station in cash, but is making facilities available to the station personnel.

It is a common practice for stations to advertise resort hotels; instead of receiving money for the spot, the station manager or some members of the staff spend their vacation there. This is a legitimate practice as long as the sponsor is identified and the announcement is recorded and logged as a commercial. Most products can be advertised on broadcasting stations, but there are some exceptions. The most notable are cigarettes and hard liquor. The FCC says that commercial messages for these products are not in the public interest.


In addition to the general requirements discussed earlier in this Section under "Making the Application," the FCC has specific rules for non commercial license applicants (section 392 of the Communications Act).

The most obvious, of course, is that there can be no commercial announcements. Although stations in this category can allow individuals to express opinions over the air, subject to the "equal time" clause, the licensee is not permitted to editorialize because noncommercial stations are largely financed by public funds.

Another rule pertains to colleges and universities seeking an educational broadcaster's license. The FCC will not issue such a license to a student organization. The license must be held by the board of trustees of the institution, even though students may be operating the station.

Twenty channels are made available by the FCC exclusively for the operation of noncommercial, educational FM broadcasting stations.

Here is a table showing the channels available and their corresponding frequencies:

Frequency, MHz Channel

As you can see by the table the channels are numbered sequentially, while the frequencies increase by increments of 0.2 megahertz.' In actual practice the FCC would not assign directly adjacent channels to two stations in the same vicinity, because they would interfere with each other. You will also note that all the channels are at the lower end of the FM dial. The FM frequency band begins at 88 megahertz and goes to 108 megahertz.


All stations are required to devote a certain percentage of their time to public service announcements. The FCC does not make any rigid prescription as to the number or the content of such messages. Its description is as follows:

A public service announcement is an announcement for which no charge is made and which promotes programs, activities or services of the Federal, State, or Local governments or the programs, activities or services of non profit organizations and other announcements regarded as serving the community interest. . . . [3]

2. The term megahertz means "million cycles per second." The assigned frequencies of FM stations are expressed in this unit. The term was named after Heinrich Hertz, a nineteenth-century German scientist, who demonstrated the existence of the invisible electromagnetic waves now used in broadcasting. Megahertz is abbreviated MHz. The capital M is to distinguish it from the abbreviation for "milli," which uses a small m; capital H is used because it is the initial of a proper name.

3. FCC Rules and Regulations, 73.112.

The last phrase in this definition leaves broadcasters considerable latitude as to the type of public service announcements they may wish to log. Almost anything could be "regarded as serving the community interest." Most stations view public service announcements as an opportunity to provide valuable information to listeners about civic organizations and activities. While the definition appears to be vague, deciding the suitability of content for a public service announcement (PSA) presents no problem to most responsible broadcasters. Charitable organizations, such as the Goodwill Industries, Salvation Army, and United Crusade, qualify without question. Federal institutions, such as the military ser vices and the National Safety Council, could be included. Local activities like the performance of a community orchestra would be seen as entitled to receive publicity through public service announcements. The fact that the work of an organization is controversial does not necessarily exclude it from falling under the heading of a public service. Planned Parenthood, for example, may not be endorsed by everyone, but it is a nonprofit organization and would qualify as a public service. Here the station must use some discretion, however. Announcements should not urge the use of contraceptives, but simply provide the information that the services of Planned Parenthood are available. Causes may be espoused, but only when they are clearly in the interest of the entire population. You can urge people to vote, to fasten their safety belts, to stop smoking, to use less energy, and to refrain from littering--but not to join a union, buy more peanut butter, or write to a congressman about a specific piece of legislation. The broadcaster is expected to use good judgment in determining what is or is not a public service announcement.


All broadcasting stations, both commercial and noncommercial, must renew their licenses every 3 years. At this time the FCC looks very closely at both the technical performance and the programming of the station.

The engineering staff is required to provide a proof of performance that demonstrates that the station has been operating and will continue to operate within the required technical tolerances of its license. The programming staff must submit a composite week of program logs, consisting of 7 days from the preceding 3 -year period. (The days are chosen by the FCC, not by the station.) From this composite week, the FCC will make a determination as to whether or not the station has been fulfilling its obligations. For noncommercial stations, the Commission looks at five different program types, which are described in section IV of FCC form 342 as follows:

Instructional (I) includes all programs designed to be utilized with facilities of educational institutions in the regular instructional program of the institution. In-school, in-service for teachers, and "extension" courses for academic credit are examples of instructional programs.

General educational (GEN) is an educational program for which no formal credit is given.

Performing arts (A) is a program such as drama, concert, opera, or dance (live or recorded), in which the performing aspect predominates.

Public affairs (PA) includes talks, discussions, speeches, documentaries, editorials, forums, panels, round tables, and similar programs primarily concerning local, national, and international affairs or problems.

Light entertainment (E) includes casually diverting programs of popular music or talk.

Other (O) includes all programs not falling within the definitions of instructional, general education, performing arts, public affairs, or light entertainment. Such programs as news or sports should be reported as "other."

In the license renewal application, the FCC wants to know the total number of hours and the percentage of time devoted to these program types in the composite week. The form looks like this:

State for a full week submitted in 1(a) above the amount of time devoted to the following types of programs (totals to equal 100%)

Type of Program Hours Percentage

1. Instructional

2. General Educational

3. Performing Arts

4. Public Affairs

5. Light Entertainment

6. Other

Total= 100

The FCC does not specify how much time should be spent on each type, but broadcasters are generally expected to program something other than just light entertainment.


In order to obtain a broadcasting license, an applicant must be able to demonstrate an ability to serve the "public interest, convenience, and necessity." To receive a license for a radio station you must file a Construction Permit with the Federal Communications Commission showing that there is a frequency available in the area you wish to serve. You must ascertain the needs of the community and then be willing to offer programs that meet those needs. As the license holder of a commercial station you are permitted to make a profit, but you must also provide a public service. In renewing your license every three years, you will have to be prepared to show that you are meeting your responsibilities in maintaining technical requirements in your transmission and that your programming meets the needs of the public.






Proof of performance


Public interest

Composite week

Public service announcement

Construction permit (PSA)

Direct address



1. Write to the Federal Communications Commission, and ask them to send you the forms for a construction permit for a noncommercial station. Get acquainted with the paperwork that must be filed to start a station. Look in your school or public library for the Communications Act of 1934. Find section 392 and become familiar with the application for a grant to construct a noncommercial broadcasting station. Find out how many noncommercial stations operate in your area. See if you can find a channel that might still be available.

2. Make a list of organizations that run public service announcements on the radio. Listen to several stations and jot down the names of the organizations when you hear the announcements. Add to the list organizations and causes that you would include if you owned a station.

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