Back in January, we reminded broadcasters that state and local elections, even those held in “off-years” like 2021, still fall within the FCC’s political broadcasting rules.  Virtually all FCC rules, with the exception of reasonable access, apply to candidates for the local school board or town council just as they do for candidates for President – i.e., once you decide to accept an ad for a local candidate, then equal opportunities, lowest unit rates and online public file obligations all apply (see our article here for more information).  But in that article, we did not focus on political issue ads, which also raise their own FCC obligations, particularly with respect to the public file and sponsorship identification.

Unlike candidate ads, or ads dealing with federal issues, ads from non-candidate groups dealing with state and local elections and issues generally do not require price and schedule information to be uploaded to the online political file (unless those ads also mention a federal issue).  However, those ads do require that the public file contain an identification of the sponsor of the ad (address, phone number and contact person should be provided), plus a list of the ad sponsor’s executive officers or the members of its Board of Directors or similar governing board.  Under the FCC’s guidance from 2019 (see our article here), the FCC thinks that most of these organizations will have more than one governing board member, so if you are provided with the name of only one officer or board member, you are required to reach out to the sponsor or their representative and ask if there are others who should be listed.
Continue Reading Reminder: Issue Ads Require Public File Disclosures Even Outside Political Windows

The New York Times ran an article about how certain African-American radio hosts were acting as cheerleaders for the Obama campaign, and contrasting that to past elections where talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh gave a boost to Republican candidates on their programs.  How is it that these programs can take political positions without triggering requirements that opposing candidates get equal time?  Under FCC rules, unless a candidate’ recognizable voice or image is broadcast by a station, there is no right to equal opportunities.  In the past, until the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine by declaring it to be unconstitutional, even without a candidate appearance, the station would have had an obligation to give both sides of a controversial issue of public importance, such as an election, free time to respond to on-air statements by an announcer.  When the doctrine was abolished, stations were free to air pointed programs taking positions on issues, giving rise initially principally to the conservative commentators, and more recently to their more liberal counterparts such as those heard on Air America radio.

The abolition of the Fairness Doctrine also allowed broadcasters to editorialize, even endorsing candidates for political office without having to give the opponent of their favored candidate equal time, just like print media can do. Similarly, a station can take a position on a ballot issue, or on another controversial issue of public importance in their communities without having to provide time to those with opposing viewpoints – allowing stations to fully participate in their communities political life.  Under the Fairness Doctrine, stations even had to give time to those with viewpoints opposed to parties who bought time on a controversial issue if the opponents could not themselves afford to buy time.  The occasional discussion of reviving the Fairness Doctrine ignores these issues.


Continue Reading No Candidate, No Fairness Doctrine and No Equal Time