Hurricane Sandy (or "Superstorm Sandy as it now seems to be called) has resulted in an outpouring of support from broadcasters across the nation, looking for ways to raise funds for those that have been affected by the storm and its aftermath. Noncommercial broadcasters who are interested in joining in the fundraising efforts were aided by a Public Notice released by the FCC yesterday, adopting a form of a simplified waiver of its policies against noncommercial broadcasters engaging in on-air fundraising activities on behalf of any entity other than the station itself if that fundraising "substantially alters or suspends regular programming" of the station. As we have written before (see for example these articles about Tsunami relief, and aid to victims of the Haitian earthquake), the FCC has previously granted liberal waivers of its policies to allow noncommercial stations to engage in fundraising efforts where there is this type of mass disaster. The process for filing for one of these simplified waivers is set out in the Public Notice.
In our previous posts about these blanket waivers, we have commented how, in our opinion, this policy may well have outlived its usefulness as noncommercial broadcasters should be able to make these decisions about what programming best serves their listeners on their own, just as do commercial stations. The Commission has itself asked whether the policy should be changed, initiating a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the subject, with comments that were filed just a few months ago (see our summary of the proceeding here, including a description of the many limitations that the Commission suggested be retained even if the rules were somewhat relaxed). While some noncommercial broadcasters were supportive of a relaxation of the policy to allow them to make their own decisions, others were concerned. In particular, some stations were concerned that the relaxation of the rules would put too many demands on these stations from various charities looking to raise money on the stations – and it would be a difficult process for stations to pick and choose among these groups. Some of these broadcasters also felt that such efforts could overwhelm the audience, change the nature of the noncommercial service, and affect the station’s own fundraising appeals. Supporters of the liberalization ask why the broadcasters can’t avoid these problems by applying their own judgment, but having a government prohibition to rely on does simplify the choices that a broadcaster might otherwise have to make. We will watch with interest how this policy issue plays out as the Commission considers the comments filed in its rulemaking proceeding in the coming year.