The Thin Green Line

Jeff Boudreau passes along some information on the “non-commercials” that now liberally litter the airwaves of public radio:

The underwriting spots I see on public stations are getting longer and longer and more product content filled, on other words they have all the attributes of commercials.

They can have all the glitzy production of commercials, etc., but there are two attributes they can not legally have. They can’t issue a “call to action” — in other words, they can’t make a direct verbal suggestion urging that people buy a product, use a service, call a phone number, go to a website, go to an event, etc.

They can show and make objective descriptions of the product or service the company provides, and they can show and/or mention websites, phone numbers, etc., as long as they don’t urge people to call or visit them. They can say “more information is available at . . . ,” or just say the phone number or website without any “call to action.”

They can describe an event, say who is performing there, say when and where it is, as long as there is no “call to action” urging people to attend. They can’t give a “comparative value or judgment” of their product or service, or say anything that implies that they are better than a competitor. In other words, they can’t say “the best,” “the greatest,” “the highest quality,” etc. They can say simply “a quality product” or “a fine product” as long as it’s not given a comparative value such as “best quality,” “greatest quality,” “the finest,” etc. They can’t say that a performing event, music festival, or concert, etc., is the “best in the area” in implied comparison to others.

As long as they follow these rules, they can have glitzy graphics, fancy audio production, etc., and they can acknowledge the support and objectively describe the service or product of for-profit companies and agencies and for-profit events as long as there are no implied comparative “qualitative” statements or “calls to action” urging people to patronize or contact them.

It’s a thin line, but professional public radio stations should know how to stay on the legal side of it. If not, they would risk substantial FCC fines, perhaps even jeopardize their licenses. I sometimes hear small college and community stations violate these regulations most likely due to poor or incomplete training of a large volunteer staff.

This is a thin line, and stations nowadays seem to tap-dance back and forth across it.


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