It’s political season, and somewhere, some on-air broadcast air personality is making the decision that they really want to change careers – and run for political office. We’ve written about what a broadcaster needs to do when that decision is made by one of their personalities, but I guess not every broadcaster reads this blog, as a story in the Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal from last week shows that there is still some confusion about what the rule provides. So it is time for a little refresher on the issues that arise when an on-air personality runs for political office.
We wrote about the issue last year, when a Chicago-area on-air talk show host decided to run for local office. Then, we noted that the requirement that a station provide equal opportunities to a candidate who is opposing the on-air personality kicks in as soon as you have a legally qualified candidate – one who has filed the necessary paperwork to run for an office. The application of the equal opportunities rule (or “equal time” as some refer to it) is not limited to the 45 days before a primary or the 60 days before a general election (those windows apply only to the application of the lowest unit charges that have to be made available to candidates), and equal opportunites applies to state and local as well as Federal candidates. Once a candidate is qualified, even outside of the “political window”, equal opportunities apply.
A candidate is legally qualified once they have filed the necessary papers to apply for a place on the ballot, not simply when they announce their candidacy. We do note, however, that stations often take a candidate off the air as soon as they make a serious announcement of their intent to run, even if they have not yet become legally qualified, simply to avoid the appearance of favoritism on the air (and to avoid having to fight off complaints from probable opponents).
What else can a station do when a valuable on-air employee decides to run for public office? We’ve written about options that stations have in that situation, but, if the opposing candidates are numerous or unwilling to waive their equal opportunities claims in exchange for a voluntary deal where they get some limited amount of airtime (as apparently happened in the Oregon case), then the stations are left with the choices of either having to take the employee-candidate off the air, or to provide minute-for-minute equal time to the opposing candidates – for free, as the employee-candidate did not pay for access to the airwaves. And this equal time requirement applies even if the employee-candidate never mentions his or her candidacy on the air.
In primary season, where most states still are, the “opposing candidate” is the one running against the on-air personality in the primary, who in most states will not be the personality’s ultimate competition in the general election – as the general election competitor will, during the primary, be the opponent of the candidates running in his or her own political party’s primary. We wrote about many of these questions in our Political Broadcasting Guide. We did have one astute reader from the West Coast who noted that, in states including California and Oregon, in many races, the primaries are no longer partisan, but all candidates from all parties run in a single primary, and the two candidates with the highest vote totals face off in the general election – and they can sometimes be from the same party. In that case, the opposing candidates during primary season are all the candidates running in the election, no matter the party with which they are associated. Always a complication!
As the election progresses, we will be writing more about political broadcasting issues that regularly arise for broadcasters. Check out our Political Broadcasting Guide for thoughts on many of the issues that arise in any political season, and be prepared for the upcoming fury of political season that will soon be upon us.