Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Buffalo NY Radio: FCC Wants Entercom's Political Rates Info

The FCC is looking into a claim that several Entercom Communications radio stations in Buffalo, NY overcharged a congressional candidate for ads purchased in 2018.

According to The Buffalo News, the complaint made to the FCC contends the stations charged the candidate a higher rate than that paid by commercial advertisers such as law firms and auto dealerships, in violation of federal law. However, the name included in the email, Jackie Drost, does not match that of any candidate for Congress here or elsewhere.

In letters of inquiry sent to Entercom, the agency has asked the company to provide documentation on paid advertising and unpaid issue ads aired on WBEN-AM, WGR-AM, WTSS-FM and four other local stations.

Entercom, in its response, acknowledged that it had not posted required information about last year's campaigns on its website until January but said this was an inadvertent error and denied any violation of federal law.

Entercom acknowledged the investigation, saying: "We are working directly with the FCC on this matter. We will not be commenting further."

Federal communications law governs who must be given access to TV and radio airtime, how much they should pay and how that use of airtime should be documented, according to the Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth law firm's CommLawBlog.

The complaint filed Dec. 13 hinges on the "lowest unit charge" rule, which means that stations can't gouge political candidates for airtime and must charge the lowest rate available to any advertiser at the time the candidate booked the ad. This rule is in effect only during certain periods before primary day and Election Day.

The complaint accuses Entercom radio stations of charging a congressional candidate identified as Jackie Drost four or five times what the stations charged businesses for the same air time.

The FCC responded to the Drost complaint by writing to Entercom on Jan. 28. The FCC letter states agency employees were unable to verify the complaint because WBEN, WGR and WTSS did not post any records of requests for political ad time in 2018 online and may have "willfully and repeatedly" violated federal law requiring this documentation.

Entercom's Feb. 28 response said it had no record of Drost seeking airtime. Further, because the company also found no record of her running for Congress it contends she was not an eligible candidate and therefore Entercom did not run afoul of the "lowest unit charge" rule.

The company posted the 2018 political records, including invoices of the rates charged to various local candidates for Congress, State Assembly and other offices, on Jan. 28, the date it received the FCC letter.

"Unfortunately, due to an inadvertent oversight the procedures broke down here with respect to the stations’ political file," wrote Laura M. Berman, Entercom's senior counsel.

The FCC sent a follow-up letter on March 5 expanding its inquiry. The agency added Entercom stations WLKK-FM, WWWS-AM, WWKB-AM and WKSE-FM to the case.

The FCC is now seeking information on both paid candidate ads and "non-candidate issue ads" for all seven stations. It set an April 4 deadline for a response.

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