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Noncoms Split on Third-Party Fundraising Change

Question is whether to relax when noncoms can solicit money for others on-air

Opinions are split on the question of whether noncommercial stations that don’t receive federal funding can use 1% of their annual air time to fundraise for third parties.

Currently, noncoms are prohibited from fundraising for other nonprofits unless the FCC grants the station a waiver, such as after a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The National Religious Broadcasters has pushed for the rule change, telling the FCC that noncoms could more easily promote worthy causes and receive some reasonable compensation in exchange.

In soliciting comments on the proposal, the commission said the original policy was crafted to “to reflect the concern that ‘educational stations are licensed to provide a noncommercial broadcast service,’ not to serve as a fund-raising operation for other entities by broadcasting material that is ‘akin to regular advertising.’” In its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in April, the commission asked whether it should change the rule and if so, under what circumstances.

The FCC proposed that stations report back to the agency detailing how much money was raised for the third parties and who those organizations were.

Religious broadcasters, like Educational Media Foundation, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago and Houston Christian Broadcasters, largely support a limited rules change for noncoms that do not receive federal funding.

Moody operates 35 religious noncommercial stations. Based on past behavior of noncoms that have been granted waivers to raise money for third-parties it’s possible for those stations to do that “without sacrificing their noncommercial nature,” said the broadcaster in comments due to the commission this week.

EMF holds licenses for more than 300 noncom religious stations. Most of its appeals for third parties have been limited to requests that don’t interrupt normal programming. It asks the FCC “not add to the regulatory burden of noncoms,” which often have limited resources, to accomplish the goal of the proceeding.

All of the supporters said this week that the change is in the public interest.

Noncommercial stations that are not religious, however, like the rule the way it is. National Public Radio opposes the change as do New England Public Radio and the University Station Alliance.

NPR tells the FCC the current waiver process “represents a careful balance between the financial needs of local stations and their mission to operate an essentially noncommercial service.” The current waiver process allows noncoms flexibility and renders the proposed changes unnecessary, according to NPR. The broadcaster also says any change in the status quo could lead to noncoms “being inundated” by local third parties with funding requests, jeopardizing relationships with the station’s potential programming partners and imposing an administrative burden on station staff.

New England Public Radio agrees with NPR, saying that the restriction protects noncoms from third-party requests for airtime and contributes to maintaining the stations’ “focus on their designated function.” Changing the rule, noted NEPR, would not be “to sustain a public broadcasting service the commission has licensed but rather for an external purpose outside of broadcasting.”