Intersecting regulatory structures

May 24th, 2010 | by Andrew Ó Baoill |

For broadcasters, there can often be several different regulatory structures governing the same set of activities – which adds, of course, to the complexity of decision-making by managers and others.

I was reminded of this today when I saw this tidbit from Inside Radio (the story itself is behind a pay-wall):

AG: Talk show not contribution.

Maryland Attorney General’s office says it doesn’t consider a radio talk show a campaign contribution. WBAL, Baltimore talk host and former Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich has said he plans to remain on the air until he announces his bid in July to reclaim the governor’s office. Several Democratic groups protested his radio show, saying WBAL was giving Ehrlich an unfair advantage.

Radio stations are, during an election campaign, subject to the Equal Time rule, which requires (with certain exceptions) that stations provide time to all candidates under the same terms and conditions. The rule is codified in 47 USC 315. That rule, though, only covers ‘legally qualified candidates’ so there’s a loophole as:

Ehrlich has declared his intentions to run for governor and has started campaigning but has not yet officially filed his candidacy.

(In an added absurdity, Ehrlich actually has a campaign spokesperson, who is issuing statements about the issue that are clearly part of a campaign for office: “We were confident all along we were right in our position. And we hope now that everyone can focus on the issues that are important to Marylanders which are lower taxes and creating new jobs.”)

Those stations which hold non-commercial licenses (WBAL holds a commercial broadcast license) from the FCC are also banned, by FCC regulation, from selling airtime or airing ‘calls to action’, which largely prevents the airing of campaign ads. Further, many non-commercial stations are organized as 501 (c) 3 organizations, and so subject to IRS regulations that restrict political activities.

With this story, despite the advice from the office of the (Democratic) Attorney General that the show should not be considered a political donation to Ehrlich, we are reminded that state electoral financing rules might also affect what can, or cannot, be aired, and that the situation might differ state by state.

Incidentally, WBAL is covering the story heavily online and over the air today – together with another where Ehrlich’s non-candidacy status is actually hampering him somewhat, as supporters are being cited for zoning violations, for large (32-square foot) signs that don’t fall under the exception for election candidates. You can’t always have it both ways….

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