Most of us have heard the occasional announcement on a non-commercial educational radio station that may have blurred the lines between an underwriting acknowledgement and a commercial advertisement. While most NCE broadcasters no doubt embrace the FCC’s rules on underwriting announcements, some seemingly believe the boundaries are open to interpretation.
Now a LPFM is paying a price for apparently going over the line.
WAWL(LP), licensed to Tri-Cities Broadcasting Foundation in Grand Haven, Mich., has agreed to pay a fine for airing commercial advertising intended to be for underwriting purposes. WAWL operates under a noncommercial educational license. The FCC in a consent decree says the LPFM will pay a $17,500 penalty and that its license would be renewed for a shorter term than usual to ensure ongoing compliance.
A petition to deny WAWL’s license renewal application was filed by WGHN(FM), a competitor in Grand Haven. The commercial station submitted 24 examples of what it called commercials running on the noncom educational LPFM. WGHN Inc. officials wrote: “The content of those announcements appear to advertise rather than simply identify the named sponsor.”
Wendy Hart, vice president of WGHN, wrote that the LPFM “airs spots, ostensibly acknowledging donors, but the content of which sounds virtually identical to commercial advertisements.” The announcements it recorded were for a range of businesses including funeral homes, restaurants and convenience stores.
WGHN also claimed WAWL failed to broadcast educational programming, but the FCC rejected WGHN’s claims on that count and declined to deny license renewal.
“We have negotiated the consent decree adopted herein, in which the licensee acknowledges that it has violated the Underwriting Laws, agrees to make a civil penalty payment to the United States Treasury in the amount of $17,500, and agrees to adopt a compliance plan to prevent further violations of the Underwriting Laws,” the commission staff wrote, adding that after reviewing the record, they thought it best to grant only a short-term renewal to October of 2024.
It appears the broadcasters involved are well acquainted. Eric Kaelin, a former general manager of WGHN, launched WAWL in 2014, according to a report in the Grand Haven Tribune. Kaelin currently serves as president of Tri-Cities Broadcasting Foundation.
For LPFMs wondering where the line is on this issue, consulting group REC Networks has the following advise on its website: “Non-commercial educational stations are not to operate as a profit-making business. This means that NCE stations are unable to carry commercials which promote a business that may have donated (or underwritten) the station. While NCE stations are unable to air commercials, they are permitted to identify for-profit businesses that support the station by announcing their name, contact information and even a non-promotional description of the business.”