The Supreme Court Decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, freeing corporations to use their corporate funds to take explicit positions on political campaigns, has been mostly analyzed by broadcast trade publications as a good thing – creating one more class of potential buyers for broadcaster’s advertising time during the political season – which seems to almost be nonstop in these days of intense partisan battles in Washington and in the statehouses throughout the country.  What has not been addressed are the potential legal issues that this "third party" money may pose for broadcasters during the course of political campaigns.  Not only will an influx of money from non-candidate groups require that broadcasters review the contents of  more commercials to determine if the claims that they make are true, but it may also give rise to the return of the Zapple doctrine, one of the few remnants of the Fairness Doctrine never specifically repudiated by the FCC, but one which has not been actually applied in over a quarter of a century.  Public file obligations triggered by these ads also can not be overlooked. 

First, the need for broadcasters to vet the truth of allegations made in political ads sponsored by non-candidate advertisers.  As we have written before(see our post here), the political broadcasting rules enforced by the FCC allow broadcasters to run ads sponsored by the candidates themselves without fear of any liability for the claims made in those ads.  In fact, the Communications Act forbids a station from censoring a candidate ad.  Because the station cannot censor the candidate ad (except in the exceptionally rare situation where the airing of the ad might violate a Federal felony statute), the broadcaster has no liability for the contents of the ad.  So candidates can say whatever they want about each other – they can even lie through their teeth – and the broadcaster need not fear any liability for defamation based on the contents of those ads.  This is not so for ads run by third parties – like PACs, Right to Life groups, labor unions, unincorporated associations like MoveOn.org and, after the Citizens United case, corporations. 


Continue Reading What is the Impact on Broadcasters of Supreme Court Decision that Corporations Can Buy Political Ads? More Money, More Ad Challenges and the Return of the Zapple Doctrine

When the Low Power FM service was first authorized, it was as a "secondary service," though a recent court decision shows how that secondary status is becoming less and less a reality.  A secondary service is traditionally one that can be allotted where there are no other uses for a particular frequency, and which is subject to being bumped off the spectrum should there be another demand for that spectrum by a "primary" user.  LPFM stations were originally supposed to provide service to areas between full-power FM radio stations, and to be bumped off the air if there was a new FM station authorized or a change in the frequency or power of an existing station.  A decision of the Court of Appeals released earlier this month , upholding an FCC order giving more protections to LPFM stations, puts this secondary service into question.

The Court decision upheld the Commission’s decision, about which we wrote here, determining that waivers of second adjacent channel interference limitations between LPFM and full power stations should be permitted to help preserve LPFM service.  In addition, the Court upheld the FCC’s process in adopting a new "interim" policy which provides that, where an LPFM is providing 8 hours a day of local programming and would be knocked off the air by an upgrade or city of license change of a full-power station, the LPFM station could apply for a waiver of its secondary status, and there would be a rebuttable presumption in favor of such a waiver.  If the waiver is granted, the LPFM station would be preserved, and the application of the full-power station dismissed.  Thus, effectively, LPFM would no longer be secondary, but instead will have assumed a primary, protected status.


Continue Reading LPFM – When a Secondary Service Becomes Primary

At today’s Future of Music Policy Summit in Washington, DC, there has been much talk about issues of interest to broadcasters, including the performance right in sound recordings for terrestrial radio, multiple ownership, and many other issues. The Future of Music Coalition, whose website is here, is dedicated to bringing the voice of musicians and the public to Congress and other decision-makers in Washington. Thus, the Coalition is involved in music issues before Congress and the Copyright Office, as well as before the FCC and other agencies on issues including multiple ownership, net neutrality, and similar matters. Members of the Coalition have been involved in the Low Power FM debate. At the panel session titled "The Hill Was Alive with the Sound of Music," dealing with legislative matters affecting music that are pending or which may arise before Congress, only one issue was perceived as being likely to be considered and potentially resolved by this Congress, before the Presidential election.  That was the issue of LPFM, where bills have been introduced in Congress to eliminate the restrictions that prohibited LPFM stations from causing third-adjacent channel interference to other stations.

The panel included staffers from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, who both indicated that, while there were many other issues of importance to those in the music industry that might be considered this year, LPFM was the one issue that had a chance of actually being adopted this year, given bipartisan support for pending bills.   The pending legislation, The Local Community Radio Act of 2007, has been introduced in both the House and the Senate.  This legislation would lift restrictions on interference to third adjacent channel stations – restrictions which were adopted by Congress about 7 years ago.  We wrote about this legislation, here.


Continue Reading LPFM Set to Move?

In the last week, several new LPFM issues have arisen – one a Congressional push to authorize more of these stations by ignoring third adjacent channel interference to full power stations, and another involving complaints to the FCC about LPFM stations being forced to change channels or cease operation because of interference from changes made by full power stations. The latter issue has apparently arisen in the context of stations taking advantage of the FCC’s rules which made it easier to effectuate changes in the cities of license of FM stations (see our summary of the rule changes here), causing more movement of such stations. Both of these issues could present issues for FM broadcasters. 

The Congressional action was initiated by the introduction of legislation in both the House and the Senate that would eliminate third adjacent channel protections that full power stations have from LPFMs. Those protections have been the subject of controversy since the FCC authorized the LPFM service.  LPFM advocates have contended that the interference protections are unnecessary, as most FM receivers should be able to distinguish between stations on third adjacent channels. The NAB contends that the protections are needed as there are still many radios that would be affected by that interference. Full power stations, except for those authorized at short-spacings prior to 1964, are protected from third adjacent channel interference from each other. Competing engineering studies have been done, the FCC has not acted on this question (and in fact Congress had prohibited such action years ago).  But now, some feel that the time for some liberalization of the rules is in order.


Continue Reading LPFM v. FM – More Stations Coming?