Climate advocacy group targets Duke Energy underwriting on WUNC

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A climate advocacy group in North Carolina has petitioned the FCC to investigate underwriting announcements that WUNC in Chapel Hill aired on behalf of Duke Energy.

NC WARN, a grassroots group that is campaigning to speed the state’s transition to clean energy, criticized language in WUNC’s spots as a violation of FCC guidelines for noncommercial underwriting. It also asked the commission to require Duke Energy and WUNC to disclose financial details about the corporate sponsorships.

Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, is one of the largest electric and gas utility companies in the U.S. It’s a frequent target of NC WARN’s grassroots advocacy and regulatory complaints challenging Duke Energy’s corporate practices.

In a 2018 campaign against the company’s “influence spending,” NC WARN petitioned the state’s utilities commission to prohibit Duke Energy from spending ratepayer revenue on lobbying expenses and charitable contributions. NC WARN’s campaigns also include runs of paid ads criticizing the company.

NC WARN petitioned the FCC because it believes Duke Energy’s underwriting messages on WUNC are “deceptive” and use qualitative language in violation of FCC standards, said Jim Warren, executive director.

Warren

In the FCC complaint filed in February, NC WARN pointed to messages that said Duke Energy is building a “smarter energy future” and is “committed to continue reducing emissions and increasing renewable energy.”

“That statement — ‘Smarter Energy Future’ — is qualitative, not value neutral, and generally promotional in nature,” NC WARN said in its complaint. “In addition to being promotional and qualitative, Duke’s above-described advertisements on WUNC are misleading.”

“It just creates a grossly misleading representation to listeners about what Duke Energy is actually doing,” Warren said in an interview with Current. “We call that ‘greenwashing.’”

NC WARN urged the FCC to prohibit WUNC from running Duke’s “promotional, misleading advertising.” It also asked the commission to order WUNC to disclose the full value of Duke Energy’s financial support for the NPR News station and details about all of Duke Energy’s sponsorship announcements aired since 2018.

An FCC staffer declined to comment on the complaint or whether the commission intends to investigate it.

FCC guidelines allow noncommercial broadcasters to air enhanced underwriting messages that identify sponsors as long as the announcements are not overtly promotional, according to the FCC’s website. Qualitative language, such as messages that describe a company’s product or service as the “best,” is prohibited. Sponsors can use their logos and slogans, but they can’t mention pricing or include a call to action.

The guidelines also note that the commission relies on public broadcasters to make “good faith determinations” in interpreting and applying the FCC’s noncommercial standards.

Michael Couzens, a former attorney advisor to the FCC who now advises public stations through his California-based law practice, describes the commission’s underwriting guidelines as “a balancing act” between maintaining noncommercial standards and allowing broadcasters to raise funds from the private sector. Sponsorship announcements also serve the purpose of disclosing to audiences the names of businesses, foundations and other groups that support stations financially.

WUNC President Connie Walker said in a statement to Current that the station’s underwriting messages comply with FCC guidelines and the law. She said she can’t comment on “the specifics of any pending regulatory matter.”

“It is through such underwriting that WUNC is able to provide the high-quality public service programming for which it is known,” Walker said.

Corporate sponsorships are a key source of revenue for the entire public broadcasting system, generating nearly 14% of all revenues earned in fiscal year 2018, according to CPB.

Judgment calls required

Many companies purchase public media sponsorships for public-relations purposes, said Jim Taszarek, managing director of Market Enginuity, which specializes in underwriting sales. Research on public radio underwriting shows that sponsors benefit from a “halo effect” that makes positive impressions on listeners, he said.

Applying the FCC’s underwriting guidelines does involve judgment calls, Taszarek added. Staying within the guidelines requires familiarity with case decisions the commission has made in the past, he said.

Melodie Virtue, a communications attorney with Foster Garvey who represents public media stations before the FCC, said a phrase cited in NC WARN’s complaint — “reducing carbon emissions by x% since 2005” — might be considered qualitative if it’s used to distinguish Duke from other companies. The phrase “building a smarter energy future” would be allowed as an established slogan for Duke.

Violations of FCC guidelines usually occur when a station allows sponsors to write announcements themselves and fails to review them for FCC compliance, according to Couzens.

The FCC’s system for discovering violations of noncommercial underwriting is entirely complaint-based, Couzens added. “If no one complains, the FCC doesn’t hear about it,” he said, and complaints have to be very detailed to trigger an FCC investigation. If a complaint documents specific messages over time, as NC WARN did in its filing, the commission is more likely to take it seriously.

“It’s far more typical that a complaint goes nowhere,” Couzens said.  

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