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Community Broadcaster: Underwriting’s Murder Hornet

Just when underwriting was tough, a new case strikes fear

The author is membership program director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. NFCB commentaries are featured regularly at

Earlier this month a news cycle was filled with stories of the U.S. appearance of the “murder hornet,” a superbug that seemed like yet another stress in an already tense period. Public media’s murder hornet may have arrived as well.

For nonprofit radio and television, revenue comes via underwriting. Underwriting is already pressed by COVID-19. So, when a murder hornet of a case — one that seems altogether different and dangerous — shakes up underwriting, community media must take notice.

A recent complaint to the FCC involving underwriting thus should be a particular concern, and a reminder that caution as well as courage is a must.

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Current reports WUNC, based at the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, N.C., was the target of a filing in Washington. The FCC complaint alleges the station broke commission rules on underwriting language for spots by Duke Energy. According to Jim Warren, the complainant, the underwriter’s tagline is not value neutral, and generally promotional in nature. Warren cites FCC rules in claiming the announcements are misleading.

As FCC complaints go, this is fairly standard stuff. Where this story gets interesting is what’s not in the complaint.

It turns out Warren is a frequent public opponent of the underwriter, blaming the business for Hurricane Florence, among other alleged misdeeds. Although one certainly must accept at face value worries in the complaint about underwriting integrity, it may also be fair to wonder if this focus on a particular underwriter is selective.

UNC President Connie Walker told Current the spots follow FCC rules. At stake are thousands of dollars in fines the station would absorb during a pandemic, when few stations are in a good position to do so.

Here is where caution and courage come into play.

Language and underwriting have been on the FCC’s radar over the last 12 months. Most famously, the University of Arkansas admitted mistakes in underwriting copy, but several stations have been penalized for announcements that veered into commercial territory. Every community radio station should exercise care when crafting underwriting scripts. Calls to action, qualitative phrases and other prohibited terms are well established. There are also many items that are completely permissible. No station should be careless when airing underwriting spots. That urgency is only heightened if your station has an instance where someone has a disagreement with an underwriter and wants to take it to a higher power, namely the FCC.

Within community radio, differences over underwriting are not new. As a former program director, I fielded calls about bars, nonprofits and various for-profit businesses listeners took issue with. I expect most stations do not have to try hard to find listeners who disagree with any number of businesses. Many of us simply stay the course, knowing we are serving our audiences with the news, information and music they appreciate. if your station chooses to ride out pushback against your underwriting or editorial choices, you’ll find wisdom, compassion and commitment to media access are your best repellent.

Pew Research remarks we live in polarized times. Amid social distancing, community radio stations will be asked to be conveners of diverse listeners, their employers and many others. Our ability to unite everyone hinges on trust in following the rules and providing the best programming we can.