public radio underwriting

Noncommercial broadcast stations are licensed to be just that – noncommercial. These stations can run “underwriting announcements” acknowledging commercial businesses that provide financial support to the stations, but such announcements must meet strict guidelines – including restrictions on “calls to action,” prohibitions on statements about prices or discounts, and requirements that no qualitative claim about the sponsor’s products or services can be made. From time to time, the FCC will fine or admonish noncommercial stations that run underwriting announcements that are too commercial. Yesterday, the FCC announced that its Enforcement Bureau had reached a Consent Decree (available here) with a noncommercial broadcaster who acknowledged having run underwriting announcements that had exceeded the bounds set by the rule. To settle the complaints about its announcements at stations in California and Arizona, the licensee agreed to pay the FCC a penalty of $115,000. According to the FCC Press Release on the matter, this was the highest penalty ever imposed on a noncommercial broadcaster for violations of the underwriting rules.

In addition to the fine, the licensee had to agree to a one-year moratorium on underwriting announcements from commercial entities. In addition, the licensee had to institute a compliance plan to educate its employees about the requirements of the FCC rules on underwriting, including a requirement that it create a training manual for use by its staff, and that it appoint a compliance officer to oversee compliance with the underwriting restrictions. For four years, the licensee needs to report to the FCC any instance where they violate the rules, and file a yearly report detailing their efforts to maintain compliance and certifying either that there have not been any violations of the rules or, if such a certification cannot be made, the details of any violations.
Continue Reading FCC Reaches Consent Decree with Noncommercial Broadcaster Imposing Largest Fine Ever Issued for Underwriting Violations – $115,000

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

Last week, the FCC issued several fines to noncommercial broadcasters who had underwriting announcements that sounded too commercial.  In these decisions, the Commission found that the stations had broadcast promotional announcements for commercial businesses – and those announcements did not conform to the FCC’s rules requiring that announcements acknowledging contributions to noncommercial stations cannot contain qualitative claims about the sponsor, nor can they contain "calls to action" suggesting that listeners patronize the sponsor.  These cases also raised an interesting issue in that the promotional announcements that exceeded FCC limits were not in programming produced by the station, but instead in programs produced by outside parties who received the compensation that led to the announcement.  The FCC found that there was liability for the spots that were too promotional even though the station itself had received no compensation for the airing of that spot.

The rules for underwriting announcements on noncommercial stations (including Low Power FM stations) limit these announcements to ones that identify sponsors, but do not overtly promote their businesses.   Underwriting announcements can identify the sponsor, say what the business of the sponsor is, and give a location (seemingly including a website address).  But the announcements cannot do anything that would specifically encourage patronage of the sponsor’s business.  They cannot contain a "call to action" (e.g. they cannot say "visit Joe’s hardware on Main Street" or "Call Mary’s Insurance Company today").  They cannot contain any qualitative statements about the sponsors products or services (e.g. they cannot say "delicious food", "the best service", or "a friendly and knowledgeable staff" ).  The underwriting announcements cannot contain price information about products sold by a sponsor.  In one of the cases decided this week, the Commission also stated that the announcements cannot be too long, as that in and of itself makes the spot seem overly promotional and was more than was necessary to identify the sponsor and the business that the sponsor was in.  The spot that was criticized was approximately 60 seconds in length. 


Continue Reading FCC Fines for Noncommercial Stations Having Underwriting Announcements That Were Too Commercial – Even Where the Station Received No Money