18 June 2008

WNYC in the News; the FCC and Underwriting on Public Radio

If you follow mon blog then you’ll know I’ve an ongoing bone to pick with NPR’s mysterious “underwriting announcer” and her androidic cadence. And so you can imagine my shock when I came across an article in Monday’s Daily News claiming that the FCC had a beef with NPR a few years ago because they felt “one of the station’s underwriting announcements sounded too much like a commercial”.

This simply can't be possible”, I thought to myself and rubbed my eyes, “Surely they must be talking about someone else!”. For there is no way anything NPR's current “underwriting announcer” could say that could ever be misconstrued as a commercial or a “call to action”. She speaks devoid of any human emotion.

Suddenly, it all began making sense. I think.

The Federal Communications Commission is notorious for moving at the pace of a garbage barge. The FCC is still ruling on incidents from 5 or 6 years ago and so normally you won’t hear about a charge until many moons after the incident when the FCC announces their ruling.

(When I worked in radio we used to get photocopies of incidents and FCC ruling transcriptions in our mailboxes every once and a while. Nine times out of ten it was the FCC ruling on some bit that happened on Spanish radio 3 years prior. Yawn.)

I suppose it is quite possible WNYC specifically brought this fembot in to be their “underwriting announcer” because of this incident with the FCC however long ago it was - probably a few years. And since NPR knew they were now being watched, they instructed this new person to speak like an actual robot, devoid of any human emotions.

WNYC/NPR (93.9 FM, 820 AM) has agreed to make a $5,000 “voluntary contribution” to the FCC as part of a sweetheart deal to resolve the charges saying one of their underwriting announcements sounded too much like a typical radio spot.

NPR's “voluntary contribution” deal is similar to a deal Mel Karmazin once made with the FCC to absolve Howard Stern from some charges saying they’d admit no wrongdoing but promise to be vigilant going forward. Basically all the FCC wants is a handout. Don’t think your government is above taking, what basically amounts to, a bribe.

When it comes to public radio underwriting acknowledgment and advertising it’s a veritable minefield of grey area. Standard radio spots are strictly verboten under a noncommercial public radio license but what’s the difference really? It’s all in how you speak, how you read it over the air.

Price or “value” information of any sort is prohibited. For instance, you’re not allowed to say things like “Starting in the low $200’s”, “Offering free admission”, or “Available with a 6.5% APR”.

“Calls to action” are verboten, as well. Don’t get caught saying shit like “Come in for a test drive”, “Get your ticket today” , or “Buy XYZ at your local drugstore”.

“Inducements to sell” are a no-no, too. “Inducements” are basically special promotions or incentives like “Free gift with purchase”, “Includes oil changes for a year”, or “Special deals in the month of June.”

Comparative and qualitative speech is also not allowed. Basically anything that favorably compares an underwriter to competitors or industry standards is unacceptable. Descriptive information that is not “value neutral” is deemed qualitative and is not acceptable. For instance you can’t say shit like “Exceptional customer service”, “A perfect setting for a romantic evening” or “High quality medical care”.

Are you bored yet? Basically radio stations with noncommercial licenses are allowed to 'identify' but not 'promote' companies, products and events.

“The FCC's rules are more lenient for non-profit organizations and these items are permissible for those organizations. That said, many stations choose to apply the for-profit rules to non-profits for several reasons. One reason is that revenues received in exchange for promoting a non-profit are subject to unrelated business income tax(UBIT), so it is an administrative hassle to segregate these revenues and determine whether tax is owed. Another reason is that some stations want to keep their on-air sound as non-commercial as possible. Listeners may not always understand that an entity is a non-profit and may be confused by what sounds like an ad. It can also be difficult for underwriting staff to explain to a for-profit underwriter why the station permits other underwriters to use the very promotional language it has told the for- profit it may not use.”
In closing, perhaps I’ve been too hard on NPR’s mysterious unnamed underwriting announcer. I know have reason to assume she must have been acting on implicit instructions to speak in a super robotic, non-promotional cadence.

My apologies, NPR. Forgive me.


Unknown said...

I know that this post is a year old but I just found it via Google. I also hate the sound of this woman's enunciation, the popping sound of her P's, etc.

I have considered writing an angry letter along with each of my pledges, but I don't think that they care what a $20/month donor thinks.

For the record, though, you are NOT being too hard on her. Why not? Because every other public radio station in this country--beholden to the same FCC rules--manages to find someone tolerable to read its plugs.

I would sign a contract to double my donations to WNYC if they would axe this woman.

Anonymous said...

That voice is the reason, the ONLY reason, I stopped listening to WNYC. I used to listen to it all the time, and now I simply don't, because of that voice. I'd tried other remedies: at the gym, for instance, I would have my headphones on and I'd play a little game - as soon as I heard the "Support for WNYC comes from" I would go for the volume control on the little radio strapped to my arm in order to cut off the voice from my headphones before the actual name of the sponsor was spoken. That was my little way of "punishing" them for subjecting listeners to that intolerable sound and cadence. Eventually, though, even that was insufficient, and I simply "fired" WNYC from my life. And, in the end, I'm happier for it.