FCC revises third-party fundraising proposal to exempt CPB-funded stations

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The FCC is scheduled to vote April 20 on a rule change that would allow religious stations and other noncommercial broadcasters to routinely raise funds for other nonprofits.

The change would not apply to public broadcasters, who were nearly unanimous in opposing a similar proposal in 2012. But CPB-funded stations that want to participate can request waivers from the commission.

That’s the process that all noncommercial stations must follow now to raise funds on-air for any charity other than themselves. Traditionally, the FCC has granted waivers for third-party fundraising only under extraordinary circumstances, such as for relief from natural disasters.

In 2012, the FCC proposed to relax these restrictions for all noncoms, including public broadcasters, allowing them to devote up to 1 percent of their annual air time — about 88 hours a year for stations that operate around the clock — to raise funds for other nonprofits.

Religious broadcasters promoted the proposal while public broadcasting’s national organizations and various station groups objected. In comments filed with the FCC, public media organizations warned that local stations would be inundated with fundraising requests under the rule change, undermining their ability to raise funds from their audiences.

The FCC tabled its 2012 proposal, but a revived push for adoption has taken pubcasters’ earlier objections into account. The new proposal would allow only noncommercial stations that do not receive CPB funding to raise money for charities and other nonprofits.

CPB-funded stations are being excluded from the proposed deregulation, according to a blog post by FCC Chair Ajit Pai on the FCC’s website, because “certain” public broadcasters made clear that they don’t want to use their air time to raise funds for other organizations.

Still, the FCC’s proposal to relax the ban gives public broadcasters flexibility to request waivers that would allow them to earmark 1 percent of their air time to fundraising for others, too. “To the extent that any individual CPB-funded NCE stations would like to avail themselves of the general rule authorizing third-party fundraising, the Commission will entertain requests for waiver of this exemption,” the FCC proposal says.

Pai

In his March 30 blog post, Pai said he believes the FCC should make it easier for stations to raise funds for other charities “so long as it doesn’t compromise their noncommercial nature.”

John Crigler, an attorney who represents many public stations in FCC proceedings, predicted that the commission will “almost certainly adopt” the rule at the April 20 meeting. Though the revised rule does respond to public broadcasters’ objections in the 2012 proceeding, he noted that it is vague about one important point — “whether that waiver request must meet current standards, or will be routinely granted for virtually any third-party fundraising activity.”

Crigler anticipates that adoption will result in more fundraising on public stations. “Since stations are allowed to charge for airing third-party fundraising messages, the rules may certainly invite more waiver requests from ‘exempted’ stations,” he wrote in an email.

Public broadcasting’s representatives offered mixed reviews for the FCC’s new approach.

“The proposed order arrives at a fair solution,” said Lonna Thompson, EVP of America’s Public Television Stations, in an email. “We appreciate the Commission recognizing the concerns of our CPB-qualified stations.”

But Craig Beeby, executive director of the University Station Alliance, said he prefers the existing policy.

“It is important the existing current rules continue to apply to CPB-qualified stations,” said Beeby, whose organization represents public stations licensed to universities and other educational institutions. Not all institution-licensed NCEs are CPB-qualified, he noted, and those stations could be adversely affected by the change.

In FCC comments filed in 2012, USA said the proposed rule would make its members vulnerable to pressure to fundraise on behalf of their licensees.

Attorney Todd Gray, who filed comments on behalf of a coalition of public broadcasters opposing the earlier proposal, described the revised rule as “probably something we can live with.”

But he expressed concern that the new proposal signals the commission’s intention to routinely grant waivers to CPB-qualified stations. A liberal approach to waivers would open the door for nonprofits to appeal to stations’ licensees to seek fundraising waivers.

“If the FCC routinely grants waivers, we’re right back where we didn’t want to be,” said Gray, an attorney with Gray Miller Persh LLC.

APTS’s Thompson said she isn’t worried about CPB-funded stations requesting waivers. “In the past, we have worked with our stations and the FCC for waivers for fundraising after certain natural disasters,” Thompson said. “I trust our stations to know their communities and know when requesting a waiver is appropriate.”

A leading advocate of relaxing the policy, National Religious Broadcasters President Jerry Johnson, praised the FCC for putting the rule change back on its agenda. “Educating listeners and viewers about critical societal needs and aiding them to help charitable groups address those needs is most definitely in the public interest,” Johnson said in a statement. “I thank Chairman Pai for leading the commission to at long last take action on this nonpartisan, commonsense regulatory reform, which NRB has long advocated.”

  • Aaron Read

    Left unmentioned here is how non-CPB-funded “college radio” will fare poorly under this new rule. Many will invariably face irresistible pressure from factions within their parent institutions to fundraise on behalf of the parent institution. Despite all the research that most college radio listeners have little to no connection to the parent institution and would be unresponsive, if not offended, by the fundraising pleas. Either they offend their listeners in a vain attempt to make their parent college happy (which will fail when few donations materialize) or they offend their parent college who has the power to sell the license out from under them.

    Also this article mentions the “almost 88 hours per year” of fundraising but it’s worth taking that math a step further to really see what a huge change this is.

    Using most public radio pledge drives as the baseline, the average amount of fundraising is 10 to 15 minutes per hour (we’ll say 12 for purposes of discussion) for about 10 hours per day, for eight days. That’s 16 hours of actual interruption of normal programming for purposes of soliciting funds (the actual definition of fundraising) per pledge drive.

    So this rule allows the equivalent of FIVE AND A HALF PLEDGE DRIVES EVERY YEAR of fundraising for third-party entities that may have nothing to do with the station itself.

    “1%” or “88 hours” doesn’t sound all that bad to the layman. But five entire pledge drives? That sounds like what it is: a helluva lot!