In the last few weeks, I’ve received several calls from broadcasters about on-air employees who have decided to run for local political office, and the equal time obligations that these decisions can create. Initially, it is important to remember that equal opportunities apply to state and local candidates, as well as Federal candidates. And the rules apply as soon as the candidate is legally qualified, even if the spot airs outside the "political windows" used for lowest unit rate purposes (45 days before a primary and 60 days before the general election). For more information about how the rules apply, see our Political Broadcasting Guide. In one very recent example of the application of these rules, a situation in Columbia, Missouri has been reported in local newspaper stories concerning a radio station morning show host who decided to run for the local elective hospital board. To avoid having to give equal time to the host’s political opponents, the station decided to take the employee off the air. This was but one option open to the station, as set forth in the article, quoting the head of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, who accurately set out several other choices that the station could have taken.
These choices for the station faced with an on-air host who runs for office include:
- Obtain waivers from the opponents of the station employee allowing the employee to continue to do his job, perhaps with conditions such as forbidding any discussions of the political race.
- Allow the candidate to continue to broadcast in exchange for a negotiated amount of air time for the opponents
- Provide equal time to the opposing candidates equal to the amount of time that the host’s voice was heard on the air (if the opponents request it within 7 days of the host being on the air)
- Take the host off the air during the election
Other situations have also arisen concerning non-employees, running for office, who may work for another local station, for ad agencies, or for advertisers, but whose voice or picture appears on spots that run on a station.
The Commission’s rules require equal opportunities where a candidate’s "recognizable voice or image" appears on a broadcast station. So, if an announcer with a recognizable voice decides to run for office, commercials featuring that voice become subject to the equal opportunities doctrine. If that voice is on a PSA or station promotional announcement, for which no consideration is received by the station,opposing candidates who request it within 7 days, get equal time for free – and they can use it in connection with their campaign. If the voice is on a paid commercial, the opposing candidate will probably have to pay for the equal time, though the opponent would get lowest unit rates during political window periods (even though the initial candidate’s spot for a commercial advertiser was for full commercial rates). As the equal time obligation to respond to paid spots is not for free, but instead only gives the opponent the right to buy time, stations might seem to have no reason to object to the initial candidate’s voice on a spot. However, that spot could force the station to sell time to candidates in a race in which the station might have otherwise have determined not to sell time. Only Federal candidates have a right of reasonable access to broadcast stations. Stations can choose whether or not to give state and local candidates access to their stations but, once they make the station available to one candidate, they must make it available to all candidate for the same office. Thus, a station may have decided, for inventory control or other reasons, not to sell time to candidates for an office like hospital commissioner but, if one candidate’s recognizable voice appears on an ad for a local car dealer, the other hospital commissioner candidates can request time within 7 days, and be entitled to purchase such time.
Stations also need to make notes in their public file of all "uses" of a station by a political candidate. All of these appearances by on-air personnel who become candidates would be considered a use by a political candidate (even though they never mention their campaign), so they must be noted. Clearly, there are many political broadcasting issues that must be considered when an employee runs for office – so stations should take care of observing those rules.