When I sent a legal memo over to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on October 15, 2008, with a modest proposal for a rule change, I had no idea it would take 8 ½ years to bear fruit. But it did. The happy result is something every non-commercial broadcaster should take advantage of.
Back then, as now, I was looking for ways in my capacity as General Counsel for National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) to move Christian broadcasting forward, to help change FCC rules that hampered rather than benefited the industry, and perhaps even to bless communities in the process. That is when NRB member Joseph Chautin, a fine broadcast and communications attorney, suggested that I take a look at the FCC rules regarding non-commercial educational (NCE) stations – which includes nonprofit Christian radio and TV stations – those regulations that limited their ability to raise money on the air for other worthy nonprofit ministries and charities (third-party nonprofits). So, I started reading.
Those long-standing rules had for decades prevented non-com radio and TV stations from interrupting regular programming to conduct on-air fundraising for third-party charities, no matter how important the cause, unless it involved extraordinary circumstances such as relief efforts due to hurricane or tornado devastation or a major terror attack. NRB’s proposal was simple: give nonprofit stations the chance to allocate a small percentage of their on-air time every year to raise money for worthy 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit groups of their choosing – everything from homeless shelters to crisis pregnancy centers, literacy programs, food pantries for the needy, and many more. However, the road to the rule change would end up being a long and winding one.
After gaining the support of Steven Waldman, a special advisor to the FCC, it led to my testifying before the FCC in Washington, and again at an FCC field hearing at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, where FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski publicly announced his endorsement of the idea. But when the Chairman left, and was replaced, things ground to a halt. Years passed. Then came a national election in 2016, and a new administration, and Ajit Pai was named the new FCC Chairman. In short order Chairman Pai guided the rule change proposal to an official Order and Report on April 20, 2017, an order filled with references to NRB’s leadership on this issue.
Every non-commercial broadcast station should consider availing themselves of this rule change. It has the potential of building important partnerships between non-com stations and worthy 501(c)(3) tax exempt ministries and charities, while informing communities about the services and special projects of those groups.
The rules are clear, and the obligations imposed by the FCC are modest. Every station engaging in third-party fundraising under this rule:
- Must limit the amount of air-time in fundraising for third party charities to 1% of the station’s total annual programming time as calculated from the prior year
- Must disclose at the beginning of the program, at the end of the program, and one more time in between that the fundraising is not for the station, but for the nonprofit group that is clearly identified (Further details about the third-party charity and its various projects can be set-out on the station’s website.)
- Must conform to the rules that limit reimbursement to the station from the charity to those expenses connected to the fundraising appeal (In other words, as stated by the FCC, “[e]xpenses for which reimbursement may be accepted include expenses incurred by an NCE station in producing third-party programming and the station’s operating costs in connection with the broadcast of third-party fundraising programming.”)
- Must provide reporting on its public file. (Thus, as the Order states, “stations that conduct third-party fundraising [are required] to place in their public files, on a quarterly basis, the following information for each third-party fundraising program or activity: the date, time, and duration of the fundraiser; the type of fundraising activity; the name of the non-profit organization benefitted by the fundraiser; a brief description of the specific cause or project, if any, supported by the fundraiser; and, to the extent that the NCE station participated in tallying or receiving any funds for the non-profit group, an approximation of the total funds raised.”)
Does Washington listen? This is clear evidence that it does. Meanwhile, NRB will continue speaking to Washington and advocating on behalf of its members so that Christian communicators will continue to flourish and have access to every communications platform that is available.
By Craig Parshall
General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters; Director, John Milton Project for Free Speech