This is what came out of a local public radio station last week: A DJ said, in between songs, that an area auto dealership "specialize[s] in excellent service to your car" (emphasis added). Sounds pretty normal, right? Well, that word "excellent," while okay to say on commercial radio, is a big no-no on the public airwaves. It sounds too much like a paid promotion or -- gadzooks! -- an advertisement. With that one little word, and others like it, this public station began to sound more and more like a commercial outlet and less and less like the populist mouthpiece it's designed to be.
Listeners turn to public radio to avoid the commercial hard sell. When you can't tell the difference between an advertisement on the Buzz and an "underwriting announcement" on KTSU, your ears should perk up. It would seem your station, the one you support with your money, is transforming into the very thing an adventurous music lover like you wants to sidestep.
These public stations argue that they're just trying to survive, and that's true. Public radio has been under the cutting knife of the Republican-controlled Congress for the past five years. For the past two, funding has been at a standstill. It holds at about $250 million for 600 stations nationwide (which equates to about $400,000 per station). Congress also is forcing all public radio outlets to have digital technology in place by 2003. Are the feds paying for it? Nope. Each station has to find the money to make the conversion. In this environment, public stations are fighting not only to be competitive, but to remain on the dial. Their best ally: corporate sponsorships, which come gift-wrapped in 30-second spots, underwriting announcements, which can cost $100 or more.
The downside, aside from the overt commercialization, is less music, continued interruptions, up from two per hour to about four or five, and being told something or somebody is "excellent." Stations also risk catching the wrath of public broadcasting's overseer, the Federal Communications Commission, which can fine offenders upward of $250,000 for bending rules, like using qualitative words such as "excellent" in their underwriting spots. That's not exactly where you, as a sane station member, should want your donations to go.
All the ado about public airwaves and corporate sponsors began when former House speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow Republicans and right-leaning pals in Congress tried to force the government out of the public radio biz. While that cry to action has been dropped, a bipartisan bill was introduced last year that called for stricter FCC programming rules, including tighter controls on underwriting, as well as a 60 percent increase in federal funds for public radio (apparently to make up for expected losses in underwriting monies). That boost in funding was sizable but tiny, considering public stations depend on the government for only about 14 percent of total programming costs. The bill was killed soon after its introduction but is rumored to resurface in 2000.
At almost the same minute Newt et al. began attacking public radio, stations saw the writing on the wall and began aggressively courting underwriters. A recent survey says there has been a 700 percent increase in corporate sponsorship among public stations nationwide since 1995. While it brings in a ton of money, corporate sponsorship makes up only 17 percent of public radio's total programming costs, according to the survey.
An example of soaring corporate sponsorship monies is right here at KUHF/ 88.7 FM, the University of Houston's public outlet. Its revenues from underwriting have increased about 30 percent, up to $667,961 from $515,000, since last fiscal year, ending August 31. Slightly higher than the national trend, KUHF's underwriting money makes up nearly a quarter of the 49-year-old station's entire revenues, $2,606,030. Expenditures have remained steady at $2,424,189 over that same time period.
Other public radio stations in Houston are KTSU/90.9 FM at Texas Southern University, KTRU/91.7 FM at Rice University and KPFT/90.1 FM. While KTRU and KPFT do not air underwriting announcements, KTSU and KUHF push the limits of FCC-acceptable corporate blurbs. This could cost them -- and in the end, you, the listener/supporter. If the FCC gets a bug up its ass, it could come after the stations.
Ten years ago WVXU-FM, the public radio station of Xavier University in Cincinnati, was admonished by the FCC for using what the commission considered to be "prohibited qualitative and promotional verbiage" in its corporate underwriting announcements. (This proscription applies only to corporate underwriting announcements, not nonprofit or nonprofit-associated ones.) Some of the "qualitative" words and phrases the FCC noted were "creative," "fresh and original," the number of years a company had been in business and that an art gallery exhibited work expressing "timeless traditional truths in contemporary visual vocabulary." The station lost $3,000 fighting the citation and $12,000 in corporate sponsorship. Luckily the station wasn't fined.
"We don't monitor," says the FCC's David Fisk. "It has to come from a complaint." Which is what happened in WVXU's case.
So here's what's being heard in corporate underwriting spots on Houston's KTSU between Mingus and Miles: "quality work," " 'we will impress you' " (a company's motto), "authentic," "considered best," "the biggest hole-in-the-wall party" and "excellent."
"I wrote that one," says Lindsey Williams, KTSU development executive, of the spot that included the word "excellent." "And there was some question with that one with the way it was written, but as long as it's not a call-to-action," it's all right. "But," he continues, "we did look at that one, and it's kind of borderline."
KTSU's underwriting announcements guidelines, posted on its Web site, say company slogans and qualitative and quantitative statements are allowed as long as they're verifiable (by the underwriter). The blind-eyed FCC says they are not.
And on KUHF, you can hear "wide variety," "traditional," "strategic" and this one: that Abstrax Galleries, a two-week-old for-profit ceramics gallery located on Memorial, offers canvas "one-of-a-kinds." Another public radio station was cited for using the word "only" in one of its underwriting announcements. "One-of-a-kind," in light of that fact, comes awfully close to borderline-land.
But not to Bob Pettit, Abstrax owner and former ear, nose and throat doctor. Of the spot, he says: "I think it could be better."
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Of 1,000-plus bands, Houston's Feel was one of 20 selected to participate in "The Official Y2K Party," sponsored by Corona Light, Amazon.com, MP3.com and others. The show will be Webcast live New Year's Eve from Mexico.
Local acoustic bands will be vying for awards and prizes at The Vintage Bar, 4356 Westheimer, on Saturday, December 4, at 7 p.m. Admission is $5.
E-mail Anthony Mariani at firstname.lastname@example.org.