On Friday, February 27, 2015, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau released an Order imposing a $16,000 fine on WQAZ-LP, a low power FM station, for broadcasting underwriting announcements that were impermissible because they too closely resembled commercials. (Low-power FM radio stations are licensed to provide noncommercial, locally oriented programming to their communities.) Under the Commission’s “enhanced underwriting” policies, an NCE station may air announcements acknowledging a commercial entity that makes a financial contribution to the station. However, what the NCE station can say in those announcements is closely circumscribed. The Commission has held that underwriting announcements must be for identification purposes only, and must not promote the commercial entity’s products, services, or business. Specifically, such announcements must not contain comparative or qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, or inducements to buy, sell, rent or lease.
The Order does not indicate just how WQAZ-LP crossed these lines. Nevertheless, the Order provides us a good opportunity to remind NCE broadcasters to tread carefully when airing underwriting announcements. Such announcements should be kept as straightforward as possible. Stating the business’s name, its location, a plain factual description of what it sells, and its slogan should not pose any problems. Although the Commission may give a licensee the benefit of the doubt on a close call, the more an underwriting announcement sounds like a commercial advertisement, the more likely it is to violate the Commission’s policies.