Dark is a term used in the radio and television broadcasting industry to describe a service that has gone off-the-air for an indefinite period of time, or as defined by the FCC, a "silent" station.
"Going dark" was initially coined after a term used to describe a broadcast tower whose FAA warning light system had failed, leaving the tower "dark" at night and leaving pilots vulnerable to possibly striking it when flying through darkness.
According to the FCC, a radio or television station is considered to have "gone dark", or silent if it is to be off the air for 30 days or longer. Prior to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a "dark" station was required to surrender its license to the FCC, leaving it vulnerable to another party applying for it while its current owner was making efforts to get it back on the air. Following the 1996 landmark legislation, a licensee is no longer required to surrender the license while dark. Instead, the licensee may apply for a "Notification of Suspension of Operations/Request for Silent STA" (FCC Form 0386), stating the reason why the station has gone silent.
A service can go dark for any number of reasons, including, but not limited to, financial resources being drained to continue effective operation of the service as being of benefit to its community of license; complicated technical adjustments involving antenna repair, requiring the broadcast tower to be de-energized for the work to be done; fire or natural disaster that has rendered the facility inoperable; or technical adjustments that would make it prohibitively expensive to perform the work and carry on the normal operations of the station in question.
The service is not required to notify the FCC of silence if the period of silence is less than 30 days. If the period of silence is to last 30 days or longer, the licensee must apply to the FCC using Form 0386, which can be done electronically (preferred method) or by a paper application. On this application, the date the station has gone dark or its targeted date to go silent must be stated on the application, along with the reason for silence. The Silent STA (Special Temporary Authority) is valid for a period of 180 days. If the station is required to remain off the air beyond the 180 day period, a "Request to Extend STA" must be subsequently filed, along with the reason.
Tower Light Markings
While a licensed station is silent, it must continue to meet tower lighting and marking requirements as per FAA mandate. If a station (silent or otherwise) must shut down its lighting system for an extended period of time, it is required to notify the FAA immediately. The station is required to provide the FAA with its assigned tower number, latitude and longitude coordinates, and an anticipated time that the tower light operations will resume. A licensee has 15 days to make the necessary repairs until the FCC is notified by the FAA. Once repairs are made, the FAA must be notified that all is well.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was created in part to increase the accountability of broadcasters, while providing requested deregulation in response to the hardships of many small-town broadcasters with small audiences and revenues. Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, licensees of stations that were listed as "silent" by the FCC (at the time around 400) were warned to either power their facilities back up or their licenses would be canceled permanently . The FCC did allow reasonable provision for broadcasters who notified them that they were trying to get back on the air. Nevertheless, many licenses were canceled, primarily those with abandoned facilities.