Free-time flurry

Having discovered public stations must provide access without charge, some mainstream candidates request time
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California Republican Congressman Tom Campbell wants his underdog battle to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein to focus on important ideas. Last week, Campbell picked up one of his biggest ideas from
The Washington Post.

Campbell, a former Stanford law professor, is one of the first mainstream politicians to take advantage of government rules requiring public stations to offer free airtime to federal candidates. The request followed an article in the
Post

about the rarely used provision of broadcast regulation. Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan also is approaching stations for time.

Last week, Campbell asked 24 public radio stations in California to carry five 60-second spots daily between Oct. 1 and the Nov. 7 election. He is among a handful of candidates, most of them third-party or fringe candidates, who have now asked public stations for airtime, but more would-be lawmakers are expected to follow suit.

By making good on the once-obscure loophole, the free-time seekers are putting noncommercial stations in a public-relations bind with their ad-averse audiences and are drawing the ire of some Washington politicians concerned about politicizing noncommercial stations.

A few candidates have invoked free airtime rights in recent years. But requests are suddenly proliferating, thanks to an Oct. 25
Post

article on the decision of WAMU-FM Washington to give one 30-second spot daily to Terry Lierman, the Democratic challenger to Rep. Connie Morella (R.-Md.). Then Constitutional party candidate Brian Saunders requested, and received, similar treatment.

Anticipating a wave of requests, stations around the country have asked the FCC for advice on fulfilling their obligations. Generally, stations must abide by the same guidelines as commercial stations scheduling paid political spots.

The free-time duty is created by the overlap of two separate FCC rules. One requires stations-both commercial and noncommercial-to give "reasonable" and equal access to federal candidates. The other forbids noncommercial stations from charging for ads.

The FCC has no hard rules defining "reasonable" access and advises stations to handle each request on a case-by-case basis. To decide how much time to give to a candidate, stations may take into account the number of candidates in a race, the number of congressional districts in their coverage area, the likelihood of program disruptions and the number of days to an election. If stations can't strike a deal, the FCC generally steps in to mediate.

In Campbell's campaign, Humboldt State University's KHSU-FM agreed to offer a half-hour block on Oct. 31 to feature an edited version of his town hall call-in show that aired on commercial stations Sunday. Late last week, Collins was still trying to strike deals with public stations in other markets.

The flurry of requests has angered House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R.-La.), who pledged to kill the loophole when Congress returns after the election. "There's no place for advertising, particularly political advertising, on public radio and television," said Tauzin's spokesman.

For her part, Morella called her challenger's action "an absolute violation of the public trust" and pledged not to pursue her right to free time.

Leading free-time advocate Paul Taylor was glad to see public stations being forced to step up but said commercial stations must follow.

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