FCC chairman: Time to let public TV raise money for charities

We at the FCC have proposed relaxing the ban that keeps public noncommercial TV stations from doing third-party fundraising for charities. The change won't hinder the educational mission of these stations, but help them fulfill it by raising awareness and meeting community needs.

Harry Hamburg/AP/File
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman and op-ed contributor Julius Genachowski testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington June 16, 2009. Mr. Genachowski says the FCC's proposal to relax a ban on third-party fundraising by public broadcasters will 'give [these stations] a chance to deepen their relationship with their communities, and heighten awareness about disasters at home and around the world.'

After the tragic, September 11, 2001 attacks, religious broadcasters and other noncommercial stations asked the Federal Communications Commission for waivers on our longstanding ban on third-party fundraising. The FCC doesn’t allow these stations to fundraise for any group other than the station itself, but after 9/11, broadcasters wanted to launch on-air campaigns for victims and their families.

The FCC granted the waivers, and the broadcasters raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We at the FCC have now moved to make this process a matter of course – another step in our ongoing efforts to modernize the FCC and eliminate unnecessary regulations.

Currently, our policy prevents fundraising for charities and non-profits by public noncommerical broadcast stations. The concern has been that these stations must meet their educational mission to local communities through programming, not through fundraising for other organizations.

But allowing noncommercial stations to partner with charities, churches and other religious organizations, schools, and other non-profits to raise money for worthy causes would enable these stations to help meet the needs of their local communities. On-air fundraising by these stations can also help raise awareness about important local and international topics, such as poverty, health care, and humanitarian issues, thereby deepening the station’s connection to their communities.

Specifically, the FCC has proposed relaxing the ban by allow noncommercial stations to spend a modest amount of their total annual broadcast time – up to 1 percent or about 88 hours per year – conducting fundraising activities on behalf of non-profit organizations.

Public and religious broadcasters have indeed shown they are capable of conducting this kind of activity without a conflict with their educational mission when the FCC granted waivers in the past. In addition to the fundraising that public and non-commercial stations conducted after 9/11, waivers were also granted for relief efforts for hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and, most recently, the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

For example, WMIT-FM, in Asheville, North Carolina, used such a waver to raise $272, 250 in an on-air fundraiser in February 2010 for the Haiti relief project of non-profit Samaritan’s Purse – an amount projected to help 1,185 Haitian families with shelter, clean water, and medical supplies.

Given our experience in these and other cases, where the ability to raise funds for third-party non-profits has been invaluable, we question whether it remains appropriate to require noncommercial stations to seek a waiver just as emergencies are occurring. This new FCC proposal would eliminate the need for such waivers and special requests.

Noncommercial broadcasters have long served the American public by providing high quality and innovative educational, cultural, and news programming to their local communities. By changing our ban against fundraising by public or religious broadcasters, the FCC can give them a chance to deepen their relationship with their communities, and heighten awareness about disasters at home and around the world.

Julius Genachowski is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

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