Ajit Pai 2020

Critics have said that the Federal Communications Commission’s sponsorship identification rules have come up short when alerting radio listeners and television viewers that some of what they may be hearing or watching has been backed by a foreign government. FCC Chair Ajit Pai wants to do something about that. He has circulated a proposal at the Commission that would require stations to offer more explicit advisories to the public.

“American TV viewers and radio listeners have the right to know if a foreign government is behind the programming they are consuming,” said Pai. “With some station content coming from the likes of China and Russia, it is time to update our rules and shed more sunlight on these practices,” he said in a statement.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would require a specific disclosure at the time of broadcast if a foreign governmental entity has paid a radio or television station, directly or indirectly, to air material. And if the programming was provided to the station free of charge by an overseas entity, the notice would also be required. The NPRM was not made public on Monday, but the agency said the proposed rules would provide standardized disclosure language for stations to use to specifically identify the foreign government involved.

The FCC’s current rules require many disclosures related to broadcast sponsorship but do not specify when and how foreign government sponsorship should be disclosed to the public. These existing rules, which date back to the Radio Act of 1927, predate the Commission itself and were intended to prohibit stations from disguising advertising as program content. If ultimately enacted, Pai’s proposed rules would further the critical goal of transparency and apply it to foreign governments and political parties as well as their agents.

From Russia, With Radio

There’s also been growing attention on foreign programming sources on U.S. radio and television ever since the Russian-backed Sputnik Radio programming began airing on stations in Washington and Kansas City on Multicultural Radio Broadcasting’s WZHF Washington (1390) and Alpine Broadcasting’s KCXL Kansas City (1140). That’s despite a 2017 U.S. intelligence report that concluded that Sputnik was part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine,” describing the radio format as “another government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content in a variety of languages for international audiences.”

The Media Bureau had been conducting a review of the regulations, as they apply to programming provided by a foreign entity, and Pai said in April that he was waiting for the Bureau to issue its recommendations for whether the current sponsorship identification rules should be modified.

In letters to a group of seven House members earlier this year, Pai also revealed that the Enforcement Bureau had completed what he described as an “extensive inquiry” into the matter. That included issuing several letters of inquiry to the station owners. But the Enforcement Bureau determined that under federal law and judicial precedent, there is no FCC enforcement action that could be taken against the station owners selling airtime to Sputnik Radio’s parent Rossiya Segodnya.

It’s not just Russia that the FCC is keeping tabs on. In June the agency rejected a request to permit a programmer with ties to the Chinese government to beam its programming from a Southern California studio to an AM on the Mexican side of the border. H&H Group in August filed a new request with the agency.

Pai’s proposal comes just seven weeks ahead of Election Day, which could either accelerate its adoption or, if the typical rulemaking is followed, make it a worthless exercise to prevent any misinformation from beaming in American homes before the 2020 votes are cast.

“I hope my colleagues will act quickly to approve this proposal so we can help the American public be informed when they may be watching or listening to foreign-government propaganda,” said Pai.