Pubcasters praise two FCC votes affecting noncommercial stations

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The FCC voted Thursday to adopt a regulation allowing religious stations and other noncommercial broadcasters to routinely raise funds for other nonprofits, while overturning another rule that would have required public broadcasters to report sensitive personal information about board members to the agency.

In a 2-1 vote, the commission reversed a ruling that would have obliged public broadcasters to provide the names and full Social Security numbers of each director and officer, or their names, addresses, dates of birth and the last four numbers of their Social Security numbers.

Public broadcasters have fought the proposal for years, arguing that requiring more personal information from board members would discourage them from serving. The FCC said the information would help it generate unique identifiers for station board members, improving the accuracy of data about how many women and people of color have ownership or other interests in broadcast stations.

But the agency’s two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai, now chair, and Michael O’Rielly concurred with public broadcasting’s concerns and signaled their opposition to a January ruling rejecting requests for reconsideration.

After Thursday’s vote overturning the requirement, Pai said public broadcasters will continue to have to provide gender, race and ethnicity information to the FCC about station officers and board members. But he said stations had raised legitimate concerns that the FCC’s previous rule would have made it harder for them to recruit volunteers to serve on their boards.

“The last thing we should do is penalize people like that with unnecessary regulatory burdens, particularly when those burdens could deter them from volunteering in the first place,” Pai said.

Added O’Rielly, “This mandate was never justified and deserves to be repealed.”

But Mignon Clyburn, now the FCC’s sole Democrat, dissented from the vote, contending that it would impede the ability of the agency to report accurately on the identities of people influencing the actions of public stations.

“Knowing this information informs the commission and the public whether we are talking about an individual with involvement in a single station or one that is making programming decisions across a dozen or more stations,” Clyburn said. “To ensure accountability on the public airwaves, the American people have a right to know who these board members are.”

America’s Public Television Stations, which had opposed the push for more information, expressed support for the decision. “We are pleased the Commission recognized that individuals who serve on noncommercial educational station boards are unpaid volunteers and should not be subject to unnecessary reporting requirements while providing a valuable public service,” said EVP Lonna Thompson in a press release Thursday.

Meanwhile, the commissioners unanimously approved a change allowing religious stations and other noncommercial broadcasters not funded by CPB to routinely devote up to 1 percent of their annual air time to raise funds for other nonprofits.

Previously, noncommercial stations were generally prohibited from raising funds on-air for anybody except themselves. At the request of public broadcasters, the FCC excluded CPB-funded stations from the new third-party fundraising authority. But the stations will be able to continue applying for waivers to raise funds for charities in the wake of natural disasters and other catastrophic events, under the policy that previously applied to all noncommercial educational stations.

The FCC excluded CPB-funded stations because many public broadcasters had argued that the change would undermine their ability to raise funds and prompt a flood of unwanted fundraising requests.

In a statement, Commissioner Clyburn said the FCC had included language in the new rule to make clear that the agency’s policy will continue to limit waivers to stations seeking to raise funds for “disasters and other singular catastrophic events.”

“From my vantage point, the Commission’s waiver process has worked well, balancing the need for a non-profit to raise funds following a natural disaster or other major emergency, while preserving the core responsibilities of an NCE [noncommercial educational station], to serve the educational needs of the local community,” she said.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said he would consider raising the fundraising cap to 5 percent of annual airtime or higher. “Moreover, I query the need to ban those NCEs with ties to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, thus forcing those entities to seek a commission waiver,” O’Rielly said.

And FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said, “Minimally relaxing our long-standing third-party fund-raising restrictions will benefit the public interest by making it easier for noncommercial stations to partner with disaster-relief groups, charities and other nonprofits to raise funds for worthy causes.”

APTS’ Thompson also applauded the FCC’s decision to exempt CPB-funded stations from the third-party fundraising rules “and to retain waiver standards for NCE stations when needed for their communities in situations such as natural disasters.”

But attorney Todd Gray, who filed comments on behalf of a coalition of public broadcasters who opposed the FCC’s original proposal to relax the fundraising restrictions for all noncommercial educational stations, said the final rules adopted by the agency did not spell out what waiver standards will apply to CPB-funded stations.

“We presume that the former waiver standards would apply (which allow fundraising for such things as natural disasters),” Gray said in an email.

“We are of course pleased that the FCC was responsive to public TV and radio concerns about the change in the rule, and seems to have done a good job of accommodating the interests of all parties,” he added.