Every noncommercial station, including LPFMs, that accepts underwriting announcements should be concerned about making sure that the announcements meet FCC guidelines and remain truly noncommercial.  An FCC Order was released yesterday announcing a consent decree entered into between the University of Arkansas and the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau.  The Order illustrates what can happen if noncommercial stations are not careful – as the University agreed to pay what is essentially a fine of $76,000 and to adopt a compliance plan that forces the University to carefully monitor underwriting announcements for the next five years, as well as engaging in programs to educate and monitor its staff to insure future compliance.  The FCC Order announcing the consent decree should be carefully reviewed by all noncommercial broadcasters to see what can happen if they do not comply with the rules.

The FCC’s Order itself does not go into detail about the alleged instances of where the station exceeded what is permitted by the rules.  But the Order does enumerate the policies that restrict underwriting in the following statement:

such announcements may not contain comparative or qualitative descriptions; price information (sales or discounts); calls to action; inducements to buy, sell, rent, or lease; or excessively detailed “menu listings” of services offered by the entity. Although the Commission has not adopted any quantitative guidelines on underwriting announcements, it has found that the longer the announcement, the more likely it is to contain material that is inconsistent with their “identification only” purpose.

While most noncommercial broadcasters are familiar with the obligations to avoid calls to action, qualitative claims, and price and discount information, some of the more subjective criteria listed in the Order may not be as familiar.  The FCC notes that underwriting announcements, while they can generally mention the services provided by an underwriter, they should not have an excessively detailed list of those services.  In addition, the announcements should not be of excessive length, as they are likely to sound more commercial – going beyond a mere identification of the sponsor.  See our article here for another case where this issue arose.

The Order itself does not enumerate the problems with the announcements broadcast on the University’s stations.  But in the public file of one of the stations, the initial complaint is available, and that provides more detail on the issues found to be problematic by the FCC.  Announcements contained all sorts of potentially problematic information including:

  • Specifics on warranties available on lawn mowers and furniture – and details of models and brands
  • In an insurance ad, acting out risks that can be faced by consumers before saying that the insurance company can “help life go right” and in another saying that the agency has “great claim service”
  • In a car dealer ad, talking about how a car is “the most powerful muscle car ever” and promoting a special event – presumably a sale – at the dealership. In another, talking about how a car is “the most customizable vehicle on the planet.”
  • For a bank, saying that they provide “a better way to bank”
  • For a car repair shop, talking about how the owners “go above and beyond to ensure that their customer service comes first and foremost” and talking about how they want to help and can take care of repairs – sounding like calls to action.

This is just a sampling of the announcements that were included in the complaint.  While we cannot say for certain that these were the phrases that the FCC found violated the FCC policies, we do note that the extensive list of these announcements that more than pushed the limits formed a pattern that certainly troubled the FCC.  In most cases, underwriting announcements should sound kind of boring – just making a short announcement thanking the underwriter for its support and giving a very general description of who the underwriter is and what they do, with an address or phone number or website, but with no call to action suggesting that listeners actually use the company’s services or even use the contact information provided.  In the cases discussed in the Order yesterday, the stations seemed to try to jazz up the underwriting – and when you do that, it can lead to trouble.

So be careful in your underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations.  Keep your announcements simple and kind of boring.  If nothing else, this Order shows that the FCC can be very concerned when presented with a situation that crosses the line.

Addendum – 1/8/2020, 3 PMAfter this article was posted, one noncommercial broadcaster wrote me to take issue with my advice to keep underwriting announcements “kind of boring.”  She suggested that a better way to phrase the advice is that underwriting spots should be informational, not promotional.  No offense intended by my comment – and her advice is good – underwriting spots should provide a minimal amount of information to identify who an underwriter is and what they do, but they should not promote that underwriter’s business.  It is a hard distinction, but one that has to be observed.  Such spots may indeed seem boring to underwriters accustomed to flashier ads on commercial stations, but they need to understand that noncommercial stations are subject to restrictions that commercial broadcasters are not.