A group of radio broadcasters have asked the FCC to agree to waive some provisions of the current sponsorship identification rules of the FCC to permit stations that have sponsored music or sports programming to move some of the required sponsorship identification online (the request is available here). This is to provide listeners with a more detailed and accessible means of determining the sponsor of certain broadcast programming. The FCC’s Mass Media Bureau has asked for public comments on this proposal, with comments due by April 13, and reply comments by May 12.

The examples of situations where the waiver would be used as provided in the Petition are for sponsored music programming (e.g. if a particular music label was to purchase an hour to feature their recordings) or sports programs (e.g. if a team were to purchase time on a station to do a coaches program or even a full game). The current rules require that the identification must be broadcast at the time of the broadcast – which has often been interpreted to mean at the time of the program, which is why you see the sponsorship acknowledgements at the end of TV quiz shows, acknowledging all the companies who provided free stuff to the program producers to get their products mentioned on air. The proponents of the new approach set out in this petition suggest that the online disclosure might actually provide more information to listeners of a radio program as, if the listeners don’t happen to be listening at the top of the sponsored hour (or three hours for a sponsored baseball game broadcast), they don’t hear the fleeting announcement. So the broadcasters have suggested what they see as a better way of providing that announcement.The broadcasters suggest that, to be eligible for this form of sponsorship identification, the station must run a three-week sustained “listener education campaign,” airing a series of announcements letting listeners know that certain programming on the station is sponsored, and that the information about those sponsors is available on the station’s website. After the initial campaign, the station would air a daily spot, identifying programs that are sponsored and third parties who are sponsoring them, and directing listeners to the station’s website for more information.

This proposal has drawn some criticism, principally from groups representing musicians, featured in a recent NY Times story, here. These groups suggest that the approval of this plan would make legalized “payola” more prevalent to the detriment of independent artists. As the concept of sponsored music programs is already legal, if the sponsorship ID is provided, it seems to me the only question is what is the best way to identify the sponsor – though an ID at the beginning or end of a sponsored program, or through a continuous education program directing listeners to an online site where the sponsorship identification can be reviewed at the listener’s leisure. That is the issue that the FCC will have to decide.

This is a request for comments, not a formal rulemaking proceeding. As the proposal is not asking for a rule change, but instead for a standardized waiver of the existing rule, the Commission could act on the petition without further comment, or it could decide to initiate a rulemaking procedure if it decided that a formal rule was the best way to proceed. The proceeding has been designated as “permit but disclose,” meaning that lobbying on the issue is permitted as long as a summary of any meeting or discussion with FCC decision-makers on the topic is summarized in writing and filed at the FCC as provided by its “ex parte” rules. Some petitions like this are processed quickly, while others sit forever at the Commission without formal action. Only time will tell how this one is received.