The FCC yesterday issued an order declining to allow experimentation with the noncommercial underwriting rules that was requested by the licensee of noncommercial radio stations in the Phoenix area.  The licensee had asked the FCC for permission to conduct a three year experiment by relaxing the underwriting rules in certain ways to determine the effect such a relaxation would have on its ability to raise revenue, and the impact on the listening and support that the station currently enjoys.  In denying the station experimental authority to conduct the test, the FCC determined that it lacked the authority to authorize it, as the relaxation that the license was seeking would be prohibited not only by FCC rules, but also by statute, and the FCC cannot waive or grant an exception to a statutory provision (unless specifically permitted by the statute). 

The underwriting rules prohibit noncommercial stations from running advertising for commercial entities.  These rules have been relaxed somewhat over the last 30 years to allow for “enhanced underwriting” announcements, which allow noncommercial stations to identify their sponsors, and provide limited information about the products and services of those sponsors.  But the information cannot be promotional in nature.  Specifically, there are a number of limitations put on these announcements.  Some of these limitations include: (1) the announcements cannot contain “calls to action” – statements that suggest that listeners buy from the sponsor or patronize their place of business; (2) the announcements cannot have qualitative claims – so noncommercial stations cannot say that their sponsor was voted the “best car repair shop in the city by City Magazine,” even if that statement of fact is true; and (3) the announcement cannot provide price or other information relevant to a buying decision, e.g. where tickets are sold, interest rates, etc.  For more information about these rules, see some of our previous articles on this topic here, here, here and here, as well as a presentation on that issue that is discussed here.  What did this licensee seek to change in its experiment?
Continue Reading FCC Declines to Allow Experimentation with Noncommercial Underwriting Rules

Fines for noncommercial broadcasters who air acknowledgments of their donors and contributors that sound too much like commercials have been a problem area for many noncommercial educational radio and television stations, and have resulted in significant fines from the FCC.  The FCC allows "enhanced underwriting announcements" that identify a sponsor, what their business is

Stations that are licensed as "noncommercial educational" stations are prohibited by the FCC from running commercials – seemingly a pretty straightforward prohibition.  Yet drawing the line between a prohibited commercial and a permissible sponsorship acknowledgment is sometimes difficult in these days of "enhanced underwriting."   In a recent case, the FCC fined a noncommercial radio station $12,500 for repeatedly airing 4 announcements from sponsors that the Commission found to have crossed the line by being overly promotional.  These announcements, which appear to have been recordings of unscripted sponsor acknowledgments, demonstrate how carefully noncommercial stations must police their sponsorship announcements to avoid risking an FCC sanction.

The announcements in these cases are worth reviewing. Some have subtle promotional messages, while the areas of concern are more clear in others.  But in reaching its decision, the Commission goes through a close analysis of the wording of each announcement to see if the announcement contains "comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease", all prohibited language in a noncommercial sponsorship identification.  So, when one of the announcement referred to "beautiful Harley Davidson light trucks" sold by a local auto dealer who sponsored the station, the FCC found that this was a qualitative claim that went over the line.  Similarly, statements that "we have it here" or "where we are proud to be Mexicans" (these announcements having been run on a Spanish-language station in California) were found to be attempts to qualitatively distinguish this dealer from others, or to be inducements to buy – a prohibited call to action.  And a specific statement that "no downpayment" would be required on a purchase constituted the kind of price information that should not be contained in a sponsorship acknowledgment.  Another announcement for a local tire store had similar problems in the content of the ads, using phrases such as stating that the company "knows about tires" and that the company’s product "reduces [the] loss [of tire] pressure" and "has less risk of suffering damages . . . last longer and [is] not too expensive cause you to save more . . . [and] save more in gas per mileage."


Continue Reading Noncommercial FM Station Fined $12,500 for Sponsorship Acknowledgments That Were Too Commercial