Stations that are licensed as "noncommercial educational" stations are prohibited by the FCC from running commercials – seemingly a pretty straightforward prohibition. Yet drawing the line between a prohibited commercial and a permissible sponsorship acknowledgment is sometimes difficult in these days of "enhanced underwriting." In a recent case, the FCC fined a noncommercial radio station $12,500 for repeatedly airing 4 announcements from sponsors that the Commission found to have crossed the line by being overly promotional. These announcements, which appear to have been recordings of unscripted sponsor acknowledgments, demonstrate how carefully noncommercial stations must police their sponsorship announcements to avoid risking an FCC sanction.
The announcements in these cases are worth reviewing. Some have subtle promotional messages, while the areas of concern are more clear in others. But in reaching its decision, the Commission goes through a close analysis of the wording of each announcement to see if the announcement contains "comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease", all prohibited language in a noncommercial sponsorship identification. So, when one of the announcement referred to "beautiful Harley Davidson light trucks" sold by a local auto dealer who sponsored the station, the FCC found that this was a qualitative claim that went over the line. Similarly, statements that "we have it here" or "where we are proud to be Mexicans" (these announcements having been run on a Spanish-language station in California) were found to be attempts to qualitatively distinguish this dealer from others, or to be inducements to buy – a prohibited call to action. And a specific statement that "no downpayment" would be required on a purchase constituted the kind of price information that should not be contained in a sponsorship acknowledgment. Another announcement for a local tire store had similar problems in the content of the ads, using phrases such as stating that the company "knows about tires" and that the company’s product "reduces [the] loss [of tire] pressure" and "has less risk of suffering damages . . . last longer and [is] not too expensive cause you to save more . . . [and] save more in gas per mileage."
As evidenced by this decision, noncommercial broadcasters need to concentrate on the facts when delivering a sponsorship acknowledgment. A station can identify the sponsor and provide a non-promotional description of what business they are in, and provide contact or location information. But they need to keep these product identification statements short and generic, and avoid all that stuff that sometimes makes commercials on commercial stations interesting – the music, the hype, the reason why one business is better or different from its competitors, and the real push to make the listener want to patronize the sponsor. We’ve written about some other cases where underwriting acknowledgments have gone too far and prompted FCC fines, here and here. There is a fine line between the permissible and the prohibited, but it is one that noncommercial stations must carefully walk to avoid FCC penalties.