The data is organized based on the premise that the paper documents related to an application are sitting in a folder in a filing cabinet in FCC headquarters or in a warehouse. Once the processing of an application was complete, there was no further need for the folder or its contents unless some subsequent issue came up.
While the electronic data has been collected since 1979, it is spread over multiple computer systems and the search tools have serious limitations for connecting the dots. The FCC is chronically understaffed and is hampered by the poor access to the data, which is highly redundant and full of inconsistencies.
Further complicating things is that broadcast licenses (AM, FM, TV) are only a small part of what the FCC does. It also licenses amateur radio operators, airplane and airport communications, satellites, cell phone towers, public service (fire, police, pagers, taxis, hospitals) and private business systems (electric utilities, railroads, package delivery services, appliance repair vans, etc.)
There is a recurring theme that the FCC has this instinct that it needs to combine all of the data from all the different unrelated systems into the perfect one big huge “Universal” license database. Of course, federal government and military radios are not publicly licensed and not disclosed to the public – and not accessible by citizens. National Security, of course.
Being able to easily combine and track the parties on all apps has been very useful to track down the people responsible for radio stations with little or no internet visibility.
The most valuable application type is the biennial ownership report that all broadcast licensees are required to file every two years, and updates when there is a material change to the ownership, like the sale of a station, death of an owner, etc… license renewals currently happen every 8 years in most cases.
Among the other data in the report is the name and address of the legal entity that owns the station license and the name and address and percentage of ownership, and relationships among the owners (husband/wife, father/daughter, brother/sister, etc). Also, if the owner owns more than one radio station, a list of radio stations is submitted to comply with reporting of ownership caps.
While the ownership reports are online, they must be accessed very slowly one at a tine, and the output is 95% “noise” – legalese to be printed on the application back when it was an actual paper document. Seeing the history of the ownership of a station license is at best tedious. Google does not index this information (yet!), even though it is public information. There is no right to be anonymous if you hold a broadcast license. That’s why private equity firms exist!
If you like to watch Sausage being made, here is the work in process. It will improve over time. This example is a station in Las Vegas, New Mexico that may be derelict. It may exist, but just playing a satellite feed 24 hrs a day. I can’t tell unless I was there.
The FCC has not yet learned of a thing called UPPER and lower case. Almost all data is stored ENTIRELY IN UPPER CASE. That was common in the 1970s when data entry was done on 80 column Hollerith cards on keypunches. Using lower case wasted keypunch time. I’m undoing that, but it leaves artifacts like “Llc” where the code isn’t smart enough to know LLC should stay in all caps. Note that before 2009, name and address was stored as one big long string, which is pretty useless to a computer. Breaking it apart into its pieces is not trivial – not impossible, just harder than it looks. That’s on the todo list.
I’m not particularly picking on this station – it happened to be the one that inspired me to proceed. The owners are proud of their lineage, having lived in the area of Las Vegas NM prior to statehood. Las Vegas, New Mexico has an extremely interesting history. The Baca family bought the station in 2009.
In 2014, they got a somewhat unusual visit from an FCC inspector, who discovered the station’s Emergency Alert System (EAS) tests had not been performed nor relayed to other stations for the past 4 months. The FCC takes this totally pointless system very seriously; along with failure to maintain a public inspection file – that literally nobody other than an FCC inspector has ever asked to see in the history of the FCC. Both rules are used to punish an owner for some other reason where the FCC has no jurisdiction – or because some competing radio station complains, or some local politician wasn’t paid off, or the crabby neighbor next door wants the station transmitter to be torn down to not give them autism and cancer and interfere with their tinfoil hat. The FCC then issues a fine (sort of) that they can use later to refuse to renew the license.