FCC Fines Non-Profit WBAI For Broadcasting Commercials

Advertising and noncommercial radio don’t mix, and the Pacifica Foundation has agreed to pay a $25,000 fine and accept a short-term license renewal for “Pacifica Radio 99.5” WBAI New York as a result. This after the station aired underwriting messages the Federal Communications Commission says crossed the line into full-fledged ads.

Those messages, according to the FCC, contained comparative and qualitative descriptions, price information, calls to action, and inducements to buy products or services provided by program guests. The agency says the station also failed to include the required sponsorship identification.

As Inside Radio reported earlier this month, the FCC sent a letter of inquiry to WBAI in February alleging several programs, including the “Gary Null Show,” the “Christine Blosdale Special” and “Off the Hook,” underwrote announcements in which the hosts discussed products and services without proper sponsorship identification. The petition seeking an investigation came from Pacifica Safety Net, a group focused on what it says is the continued “mismanagement” of Pacifica. It included examples totaling 20 hours of content, although the group said it collected “substantially more examples” of underwriting violations that it is willing to share with the FCC.

Pacifica Safety Net says some of the most egregious examples of pitches for what it describes as “snake oil or alternative beauty products” came with mentions of producer Gary Null pitching his for-profit nutritional health supplements on the air. In at least one example, it says during a station fund drive listeners were offered what amounted to infomercials for the products, complete with price and telephone number call-to-action statements.

In another case, Pacifica Safety Net says WBAI pitched numerous beauty products, “how to” programs, alternative healing and other services that similarly included price and phone numbers as part of a fund drive that offered them as a thank you gift for a $150 donation to the station.

FCC Media Bureau Chief Holly Saurer says they negotiated a consent decree with Pacifica in which the broadcaster acknowledges that it has violated the underwriting laws and sponsorship ID rules. Pursuant to that agreement, the station, among other things, will implement a comprehensive plan to ensure future compliance.

WBAI will also need to file annual compliance reports with the Bureau, as well as pay the $25,000 fine. In the order, Saurer says the consent decree provides “assurances that the misconduct will not be repeated in the future and that a compliance plan will be implemented and administered by an independent compliance officer.”

The agreement comes as the FCC was reviewing WBAI’s license renewal application, and as part of the consent decree, Pacifica voluntarily agrees to accept a short-term renewal of two years, rather than the usual eight years.

The agreement by Pacifica is an about-face from what it said to the FCC two years ago. Then it asked the Commission to reject the petition, calling the allegations “procedurally flawed and substantively baseless” with “no basis whatsoever in fact.” But Pacifica may have ultimately decided it was not worth the fight. The Foundation has tried to move on from years of tumult. It hired a new executive director with the mission of moving forward from an era that included the unauthorized shutdown of WBAI in October 2019 and a $300,000 judgement against the station brought by a former interim station manager who sued Pacifica for defamation.

Pacifica Safety Net has pushed for the sale or lease of WBAI, saying it “would have a high value” and those funds could help support the network’s larger left-leaning mission elsewhere. The group says there have been consistent financial shortfalls at WBAI that have totaled more than $8 million in the last decade, with a projected shortfall of more than $214,000 this fiscal year.

If it were to sell, Pacifica Safety Net says the money could support other stations in the network, including variety KPKK Los Angeles (90.7), variety KPFA/KPFB San Francisco (94.1/89.3), news/talk KPFT Houston (90.1) and news/talk WPFW Washington, DC (89.3).

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