As everyone in non-commercial radio in the United States knows, there’s often a fine line between underwriting messages to indicate sponsored programming and commercial announcements.
College, community and other non-commercial radio stations are not allowed to air commercials, but they can play underwriting announcements which simply acknowledge the support received by an outside entity. It’s extremely important that underwriting adheres to guidelines set forth by the FCC and that it doesn’t veer into commercial territory.
On June 15, non-commercial, educational radio station KUFW-FM in Woodlake, California, was levied a fine (PDF) of $12,500 for repeatedly broadcasting 4 different commercial announcements in 2006. These commercials were played more than 2000 times over the air.
The FCC’s Notice of Apparent Liability to Forfeiture letter to KUFW outlines what defines a prohibited advertisement:
“Advertisements are defined by the Act as program material broadcast ‘in exchange for any remuneration’ and intended to ‘promote any service, facility, or product’ of for-profit entities. The pertinent statute specifically provides that noncommercial educational stations may not broadcast advertisements.”
Additionally, the letter explains how underwriting differs from advertising, providing examples of how an announcement can veer into illegal territory:
“Although contributors of funds to such stations may receive on-air acknowledgements, the Commission has held that such acknowledgements may be made for identification purposes only, and should not promote the contributors’ products, services, or businesses. Specifically, such announcements may not contain comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease.”
Owned by The National Farm Workers Service Center, KUFW is part of the Radio Campesina Network of radio stations. The network of 9 radio stations provides music and Spanish-language programming to reach ” an underserved, largely immigrant population.”
The FCC found fault with KUFW for airing commercials for Mario’s Auto Sales, Big Brand Tire, and Muebleria La Tabatia. Language in the underwriting announcements served to promote products, used comparative and qualitative language, and inducements to buy products. Here are some examples from the ads that led to the fine:
“…we find that the Mario’s Auto Sales announcement impermissibly promotes the underwriter and its product through the use of favorable and qualitative expressions such as ‘beautiful Harley Davidson light trucks,’ ‘we have it here,’ and ‘where we are proud to be Mexicans.’ This announcement also contains inducements, such as ‘whatever vehicle with no down payment.’
The two announcements for Big Brand Tire impermissibly seek to distinguish the underwriter’s products. The first announcement claims that the company’s rims ‘will make you stand out’ and ‘make your vehicle unique.’ It also uses comparative phrasing such as, ‘We have the most recent selection when it comes to rims from A to Z’ and ‘we don’t give you a cat for a rabbit here.’ The announcement also includes an inducement for free tire alignments and free flat tire repairs to encourage patronage…”
It’s extremely important that all non-commercial stations review the scripts for underwriting announcements, as the FCC strongly states in their letter to KUFW that future infractions by other stations may be dealt with even more severely:
“…we caution the Licensee and all noncommercial educational licensees that, in future cases, violations of the type encountered here may result in even harsher sanctions than we propose in this case. Licensees have an ongoing duty to understand and carefully abide by the limitations in the Act and in our rules concerning advertising on noncommercial stations.”
To help protect your station from verging into illegal commercial territory, I’d encourage you to take a close look at the FCC’s notice to KUFW (PDF). At the end of the letter are complete examples of the underwriting scripts that got the station into trouble. Additionally, there was a similar case in 2009 in which KXPW-LP (Power Radio Corporation) was also issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture after they aired prohibited commercial announcements. To see their illegal scripts, take a look at the FCC notice to KXPW (PDF).