Non-Commercial Radio Station Underwriting Messages

    • 994 posts
    April 28, 2022 2:36 PM PDT

    Non-commercial radio stations often solicit and receive underwriting support from the same businesses and organizations that commercial radio sales reps call on for advertising. While the competition is usually amicable, there have been occasions where non-commercial stations have aired messages that sound an awful lot like commercials.

    So, what does the FCC say about the types of underwriting messages on non-commercial stations that "cross the line" into commercial advertising? Read on...

    1992 Reprint excerpted from Public Notice, April 11, 1986 (FCC 86-161),
    which was published at 51 FR 21800, June 16, 1986 [7 FCC Record 827]

    The Commission has become aware of significant uncertainty and controversy concerning various aspects of Commission and statutory policy relating to commercial underwriting on noncommercial stations.  As a consequence, we have reviewed the existing policies, focusing on ... : (1) the broadcast of announcements relating to goods and services for which consideration is received by the station; (2) enhanced underwriting and donor announcements; (3) the offering of program- related materials; .... [Public Notice continues after the Table of Contents]

    Table of Contents
    • Announcements Promoting the Sale of Goods and Services
    • Enhanced Underwriting and Donor Acknowledgements
    • Program Related Materials
    • Orders Pertaining to These Topics
    • Contact for More Information
    Announcements Promoting Goods and Services

    Section 399B of the Communication's Act of 1934, as amended, and Sections 73.503(d) and 73.621(e) of our rules, specifically proscribe the broadcast of announcements by public broadcast stations which promote the sale of goods and services of for-profit entities in return for consideration paid to the station.  These rules, however, permit contributors of funds to the station to receive on-air acknowledgements.  The Commission has articulated specific guidelines which emphasize the difference between permissible donor and underwriter announcements and commercial advertising.  See Commission Policy Concerning the Noncommercial Educational Nature of Educational Broadcasting Stations, 97 FCC 2d 255 (1984) (hereafter referred to as "1984 Order"); Commission Policy Concerning the Noncommercial Educational Nature of Educational Broadcasting Stations, 90 FCC 2d 895 (1982) (hereafter referred to as "1982 Order"; Second Report and Order, 86 FCC 2d 141 (1981); First Report and Order and Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, 69 FCC 2d 200 (1978).

    Recent cases before the Commission indicate that some noncommercial broadcasters have aired outright commercial messages on behalf of profit making entities in violation of our rules and the statute (footnote omitted).  As our action in those cases attest, we will enforce our prohibition on the broadcast of commercial messages on behalf of profit making enterprises for which consideration is paid to the station. Information brought to the attention of the Commission regarding such practices will be scrutinized and licensees found to have engaged in them will be sanctioned.

    Return to Table of Contents

    Enhanced Underwriting and Donor Acknowledgements

    Beyond the airing of paid promotional announcements, our recent review of underwriting activities indicates that some public broadcasters may be airing donor and underwriter announcements which exceed the Commission's guidelines.  In light of these instances and an ongoing debate in the public broadcasting community on these issues, we believe that a brief statement concerning the obligations of public broadcasters with respect to donor and underwriting acknowledgements is appropriate.  In March 1984, we relaxed our noncommercial policy to allow public broadcasters to expand or "enhance" the scope of donor and underwriter acknowledgements to include (1) logograms or slogans which identify and do not promote, (2) location information, (3) value neutral descriptions of a product line or service, and (4) brand and trade names and product or service listings.  1984 Order at 263.  That action was taken as another step in our ongoing effort to strike a reasonable balance between the financial needs of public broadcast stations and their obligation to provide an essentially noncommercial service.  It was our view that "enhanced underwriting" would offer significant potential benefits to public broadcasting in terms of attracting additional business support and would thereby improve the financial self-sufficiency of the service without threatening its underlying noncommercial nature.  In this regard, we emphasized that such announcements could not include qualitative or comparative language and that the Order should not be construed as allowing advertisements as defined in Section 399B of the Communications Act.  Id. (Footnote 1)

    We recognized in our 1982 Order that it may be difficult at times to distinguish between announcements that promote and those that identify.  For that reason, we expressly stated that we expect public broadcast licensees to review their donor or underwriter acknowledgements and make reasonable good faith judgements as to whether they identify, rather than promote.  1982 Order at 911.  We saw no purpose at the time, or at the time we adopted our 1984 Order, in fashioning rigid regulations or guidelines to ensure the noncommercial nature of public broadcasting, and we were concerned that such guidelines would inhibit public broadcasters' ability to seek and obtain the funds needed to present quality programming and to remain financially viable.  It continues to be our view that the public broadcaster's good faith judgement must be the key element in meeting Congress' determination that the service should remain free of commercial and commercial-like matter.  In response to requests for guidance, however, we will attempt to further clarify the guidelines applicable to public broadcasters' exercise of their discretion.

    We reiterate that acknowledgements should be made for identification purposes only and should not promote the contributor's products, services, or company.  For example, logos or logograms used by corporations or businesses are permitted so long as they do not contain comparative or qualitative descriptions of the donor's products or services.  Similarly, company slogans which contain general product-line descriptions are acceptable if not designed to be promotional in nature.  Visual depictions of specific products are permissible.  We also believe that the inclusion of a telephone number in an acknowledgement is within these general guidelines and, therefore, permissible.

    Several examples of announcements that would clearly violate the rule may be helpful:

      • A.  Announcements containing price information are not permissible.  This would include any announcement of interest rate information or other indication of savings or value associated with the product.  An example of such an announcement is:
        • -- "7.7% interest rate available now."
      • B.  Announcements containing a call to action are not permissible.  Examples of such announcements are:
        • -- "Stop by our showroom to see a model";
        • -- "Try product X next time you buy oil."
    • C.  Announcements containing an inducement to buy, sell, rent, or lease are not permissible.  Examples of such announcements are:
      • -- "Six months' free service";
      • -- "A bonus available this week";
      • -- "Special gift for the first 50 visitors."

    Additionally, examples of proscribed product messages can be seen in the instances where the Commission has assessed forfeitures or issued letters of warning for rule violations. 

    We repeat that the Commission will continue to rely on the good faith determinations of public broadcasters in interpreting our noncommercialization guidelines.  We emphasize, however, that we will review complaints and, in the event of clear abuses of discretion, will implement appropriate sanctions, including monetary forfeitures.


    Examples of fines and forfeitures imposed on offending stations can be found here: