FCC & IRS Regulations for Noncommercial Programmers

The FCC forbids these words: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.

However, other language can be deemed in violation by the FCC, if they are seen as Indecent, profane, or obscene. The meaning and definition of these are vaguer and up to the FCC’s discretion but avoiding this when possible is advised. Descriptions are given below.

Indecency, Obscenity, Profanity:

It is a violation of federal law to air obscene, indecent, or profane programming at any time. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines indecent speech as material that, in context, depicts or describes sexual or excretory organs or activities in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium. Also, “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, such as sexual or excretory activities and organs.” Further, the FCC says defines “obscenity” and “profanity” as “depicting or describing sexual conduct in a “patently offensive” way; and, taken as a whole, lacking in serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

The FCC considers three factors in determining whether material is indecent. The first factor is the explicitness or graphic nature of the material.

Because the meaning of works or images is not always clear, and the definition of indecency encompasses innuendo and double-entendre, the Commission seeks to determine whether material: 1) has an “unmistakably” sexual or excretory meaning; 2) dwells on or repeats sexual or excretory matters at length; or 3) panders, titillates, or is used for shock value.

It is not necessary for material to satisfy all three factors to be considered indecent, so offenses are often decided in courts. Thus, language violations have serious and permanent consequences, requiring defense fees and possible FCC fines from $10,000 to $100,000 or more or grounds for the license to not be renewed. They can disable or close a community radio station.

Noncommercial sponsors:

In Pacifica Network, most stations airing your programs are designated by the FCC as Noncommercial Educational. They may not accept on-air advertisements or broadcast commercial messages. “Advertising language” includes:

  • Language that is overtly promotional and competitive in nature
  • “Comparative” or qualitative language; hyperbolic language (“best”, “Great,” etc.)
  • Repetition of information
  • First person statements or opinions about the product or service
  • Any reference or allusion to cost (including “free”), discounts, or sales
  • Calls to action (directly telling the listener to do something)
  • Inducements to buy, sell, or lease
  • Pre-produced announcements or music beds.

Donor Disclosure Policy:

If an entity or individual is a donor to your program, and if you are presenting on a story in which the donor has a financial interest or if you have a guest on the program or is even mentioned, you must identify that they are a donor at the beginning and/or end of the program. Their sponsoring announcement may not be aired during the same program.  This disclosure policy will be in effect for two years from the time the donation is made.

Payola (Promotion & Consideration):

A commercial is “consideration in return for airtime.” Consideration means not only money but also tickets, merchandise, or any other item of value. When you receive any article of value from a business or person and then mention a product or service on the air, there is a danger that the mention could be construed as a promotional commercial.

Non-promotional, bland language should be used, as found in underwriting announcements when mentioning ticket give-always and the like. The monetary value of any event or item, even saying it is “free” may not be said on the air.

You may not receive gifts in exchange for airtime. This problem is sometimes referred to as “payola” (getting something in exchange for saying how great it is on the air).

Plugola (Programmer Financial Gain)

“Plugola” is similar to “payola.” It occurs when a show is used to promote or publicize any product, service, or event in which the programmer has a financial stake. Airtime may not be used by a programmer to promote direct or indirect personal financial gain.

More on Calls to Action

A major difference between non-commercial radio and commercial radio is the prohibition against issuing calls to action on noncommercial stations. A call to action is:

1) urging, suggesting, or telling listeners to do something that could result in a for-profit business making money; this constitutes advertising.

2) urging or recommending that listeners take political or lobbying actions (forbidden by the IRS). Examples of calls to action include:

  • Urging the listener to buy something, to go to an event, concert, or performance.
  • Mentioning that the underwriter is a friend or that the programmer likes them.
  • Giving the price of something to buy, a service, or a concert ticket, or saying they are free.
  • Urging the listener to go to a store or venue or telling them to call or go to their web site.
  • Urging listeners to boycott a company, event, etc.
  • Urging or recommending on the air that listeners take political actions such as “contact your congressman” or “go to that demonstration.”

It is usually legal to make a call to action when referencing a non-profit organization (e.g. “Send your donations to the American Red Cross”)

Public service announcements may usually contain calls to action.

Below are more examples of what does and does not constitute a call to action.

  • “This is the latest single from The Future Kings of Nowhere.” —Legal
  • “That was the Avett Brothers. Their new album comes out next Tuesday.” —Legal
  • “That was Annuals. Their new album comes out next Tuesday and you should go buy it at School Kids Records.” —Illegal; urging listeners to make a purchase and mentioning a specific business.
  • “That was Future Islands. They are playing tonight at Cat’s Cradle.” —Legal
  • “That was Inflowential. I saw them last week at Cat’s Cradle and they were awesome.” —Legal, however, if programmer constantly mentions a business, it is bordering on plugola.
  • “I have the Rosebuds here with me in the studio. They’re playing tonight at the Lincoln Theatre and we have a pair of tickets to give away to the second caller.” – Legal, however, the programmer saying he/she likes them in any way constitutes advertising and is not allowed-.

Making Phone Calls While on the Air:

The FCC forbids broadcasting a telephone call or recording a call for broadcast purposes unless permission is first obtained from the person being called. According to this law, a violation occurs as soon as the person at the other end says “hello”, if a recorder is running, even if the person being recorded subsequently consents to the broadcast of the call. There is precedent for large fines from the FCC when just a “hello” occurred during a live or recorded show, prior to such notification.

The only exception occurs when the caller “originates the call” by calling the station to be put on a program when the caller knows or should anticipate being on the air. In these cases, it is still important for the host say: “you are on the air.”