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British Ofcom dings West Midlands AM station for "blurring" ad with content

The British government released its decision today to sanction an Asian community oriented AM radio station for not keeping its advertising and content  sufficiently separate. West Midlands area Radio XL (“the best in Asian music 1296 AM”) presented a 40 second office space availability spot “seamlessly as programming,” ruled the  United Kindgom’s Office of Communications (Ofcom). Therefore it was in breach of Rule 10.2 of British communications code: “Broadcasters must ensure that the advertising and programme elements of a service are kept separate.”

For you Radio Survivor readers here in the  United States, nota bene: they do things very differently over there in the  U.K., broadcast regulation-wise, so hold onto your hats.

Pick up the phone

In October of 2009, a West Midlands area radio listener heard the following on Radio XL.

“Traffic control updates for you in about three to four minutes’ time. Time to squeeze in a little song. Just before that, I’ve got to tell you something and this is dedicated to you. In fact it’s special attention to everybody, especially if you’re a solicitor, if you’re an accountants, travel agents and all those that need office space. Now, office space now available in a prime location on the main high street in West Bromwich. The premises are opposite the subway and have car parking to the rear. Over eighteen hundred square feet of office space is available, and great premises with competitive rates at a highly sought after location there. If you want any enquiries on there, if you do need office space, why not pick up the phone and call either David on 0121… [repeats name and number] or Richard on 0121… [repeats number] and they can help you out with that, if you need any office space – got loads available over in West Bromwich.”

The listener complained, charging that the “presenter” was “blatantly plugging office space/rooms for letting … ” and that was “disruptive in [Radio XL’s] usual programming.” Plus “it wasn’t even a sponsorship or an advert … it was the presenter announcing it.”

So Ofcom looked into the case, and asked Radio XL for a response.  The station’s management acknowledged that “in this passage the presenter [was] clearly doing a paid for live read,” with “no attempt to disguise this as normal programming.” But that was ok, XL claimed because the broadcaster had made no effort “to disguise [the] material as normal programming.” In hindsight, however, it might have been better “to separate the live read from the programming with a jingle,” XL conceded.

True that, responded Ofcom. “Presenters may read advertisements (live or recorded) but broadcasters should ensure that the distinction between advertising and programming is not blurred and that listeners are not confused between them,” its decision concluded. “It is therefore advisable for presenter-read advertisements to be separated from programming by, for example, a jingle or station ident, or by scheduling them in the middle of a commercial break.”

Travel bureau

Plus, Ofcom did some of its own listening to XL, and found that it also was in violation of rules that sponsor credits can’t sound too much like advertisements, as did a traffic agency plug: “For special rates to India, Pakistan, USA, Canada, Kenya, Dar-es-Salaam, Kilimanjaro and Dubai, call Southall Travel, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week on 0121… [repeats number].” But the decision does not disclose what kind of punishment or fine Radio XL can expect as a result of these “breaches,” as Ofcom calls them.

One thing’s for sure, it’s a very different world over there than it is here in the U.S. Our Federal Communications Commission doesn’t regulate commercial radio advertising. The FCC does have some mild rules for public radio “enhanced underwriting” spots. And the agency enforces the Childrens Television Act’s strictures against excessive commerciality on kids TV.

But that’s about it. Here in ‘Merica you can “blur” to your hearts’ content, God bless.

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