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FCC To Tackle Two Noncom Priorities in April

Commission will address fundraising, ownership issues at April 20 meeting

Noncoms are getting a turn in the spotlight in April as the Federal Communications Commission takes on two issues of key importance to these broadcasters.

At the April 20 open meeting, the commission is set to consider two orders — one that would address third-party fundraising and another that would promote diversification of ownership. 

The first item could effectively relax the rules regarding fundraising. Under the report and order being considered by the commission, some noncommercial broadcasters would be able to suspend programming while conducting fundraising for third-party nonprofit organizations with one caveat: as long as stations do not spend more than 1% of their total annual airtime on such activities. The rule would not apply to stations funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai addressed the issue in a recent blog post. By relaxing the rule, he wrote, broadcasters would have more flexibility to raise money for disaster relief groups, charities and other nonprofit organizations. 

Currently, noncommercial stations are prohibited from on-air fundraising for other nonprofit organizations, unless they are provided a waiver by the commission. Such waivers have been issued in the past, such as when a station is attempting to aid charities in fundraising after a catastrophe.

“In the past, the FCC has granted waivers to allow NCE television and radio stations to solicit donations for causes such as Hurricane Katrina and Haitian earthquake relief,” Pai wrote in his blog. “I believe that we should make it easier for stations to engage in this type of activity, so long as it doesn’t compromise their non-commercial nature.”

The move was applauded by the National Religious Broadcasters organization. “Educating listeners and viewers about critical society needs is most definitely in the public interest,” said Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, NRB president and CEO, who called the move “nonpartisan, commonsense regulatory reform.”

The substance of the action began five years ago when a rulemaking was proposed by then-Chairman Julius Genachowski. It was initiated to give noncommercial broadcasters the option to volunteer a small percentage of airtime for third-party charitable fundraising. 

The rulemaking would lift an unnecessary burden on these broadcasters and serve the public interest, the NRB said. “NRB has long urged the FCC to take this reasonable step for noncommercial stations.”

The second item on deck is designed to address diversification of ownership by giving noncommercial broadcasters greater flexibility when it comes to how they share ownership information.

Public TV and radio stations have protested the restrictive nature of an FCC rule that requires board members to provide personal information to the FCC, Pai said, and as such, the commission will address the issue at its next open meeting.

“Public television and radio stations have complained that this rule is discouraging volunteers from serving in these positions,” Pai wrote. “In my view, we should be thanking people who want to serve their community in this way, not imposing unnecessary regulatory burdens upon them.” The commission will be voting to eliminate this rule.

In May 2016, a group of public broadcasters pressed the FCC to reconsider what type of information board members of noncommercial station must provide when registering with the commission. At the time, the group consisting of educational associations, universities and public broadcasting associations said they were concerned about requiring board members to provide full name, date of birth, residence address and last four social security digits, and argued that the collection of such information would contribute “nothing useful” to the FCC’s picture of diversification of broadcast ownership. In addition, requiring the disclosure of sensitive personal information heightens concerns about identity theft and violations of privacy, the group said.

More information can be found on the funding order (In the Matter of Noncommercial Educational Station Fundraising for Third-Party Non-Profit Organizations) at MB Docket No. 12-106 while the ownership order (In the Matter of Promoting Diversification of Ownership in the Broadcasting Services) can be found at MB Docket No. 07-294 and MD Docket No. 10-234.