The Difference Between PSAs and Underwriting Inventory in Public Radio

FCC, Corporate Support

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Among the many thousands of emails containing underwriting questions that I’ve received over the past two decades, one of the recurring questions is about public service announcements (PSAs). Do we have to run them? Are they free, or can we require payment to air them?

The emailed questions I received all revealed that nonprofit organizations feel that the radio station should air them for free because it’s a “public service” message.

At one point in time, broadcast stations were required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to allocate a certain amount of time to public service. This meant that they had to allocate a certain amount of air time to nonprofit groups or make other announcements that are deemed to serve the community.

So, just what is a public service announcement?

The FCC defines a PSA as "any announcement for which no charge is made and which promotes programs, activities, or services of federal, state, or local governments (e.g., recruiting, sale of bonds, etc.) or the programs, activities or services of non-profit organizations (e.g., United Way, Red Cross blood donations, etc.) and other announcements regarded as serving community interests, excluding time signals, routine weather announcements and promotional announcements."

The regulations used to be that one half-hour per week was the amount of time needed to be given to community service. However, the FCC has relaxed this standard and has, for the most part, left the PSA requirements to be dealt with by local broadcast associations.

Now let’s travel back 100 years for a bit of public service announcement history.

Do you remember the poster with an image of Uncle Sam and the wording, “I want you for U.S. Army”? It was originally published as the cover for the July 6, 1916, issue of "Leslie's Weekly" (an American illustrated literary and news magazine founded in 1852 and published until 1922) with the title "What Are You Doing for Preparedness?" This “public service” war-effort message with the portrait of Uncle Sam went on to become one of the most recognized posters in the world. The campaign that used that portrait is what we would refer to as a public service announcement (PSA).

Okay, history lesson is over.

When it comes to whether radio stations should provide PSAs for free, or charge for them, the answer is: it’s up to your station.

The fact is that nonprofits realize that there’s a value in having their message reach your station’s listeners, otherwise they wouldn’t have contacted you.

And, while there’s good reason for providing free PSAs as part of the station’s service to the community, there’s another side to this issue. Most public radio stations run just a few minutes of underwriting credits each hour. Imagine if every nonprofit in your market requested free airtime for their PSAs. Count the number of all of the nonprofits in your market. Who would you say ‘yes’ to and who would you say ‘no’ to? Where do you draw the line? You wouldn’t have much inventory left for the revenue-generating underwriting you need to help sustain and grow your station’s programming and operations.

Is there a solution? There is, and it can be as creative as you can make it. Here are a few ideas:

  • Post the PSAs on your website and promote those “community events / community calendar” web pages on-air.
  • Provide one or two free PSAs when the nonprofit organization buys an additional schedule of announcements (you get to create the package).
  • Here’s my favorite: Stand firm and explain the value of your on-air inventory, and that it’s the same value for for-profit businesses and nonprofits alike. Then give them the opportunity to buy a schedule of announcements for their PSA.

Share your ideas or success stories in the comments below.

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