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Ask MPR Mailbag

August 09, 2006

What is the difference between a sponsor message and a commercial?

Hi from a long time listener and member. When is a commercial not a commercial? All of a sudden you are advertising all sorts of builders, restaurant, condo developments, car dealers, landscapers etc. and you claim to be commercial free. [You] circumvent that by calling them sponsors, "This hour's programming is sponsored in part by....pick the sponsor" and then you go on to tell about who they are, what they do and how to get a hold of them. How is that not a commercial or an advertisement or whatever you want to call it? I will not be renewing my membership.

Minnetonka, MN

Hi David, this is a good question, and one that we hear often. What underwriters are allowed to say is regulated by the FCC. While the rules have changed a bit over the years, underwriting messages are still quite distinct from advertisements that you hear on commercial radio. Many listeners will recall the earliest type of underwriting messages, which were simple acknowledgements of support: (e.g., "Support for today's programming is provided in part by Bob's Bird World"). In those days, that was all that underwriters were allowed to say. However, as federal funding for public broadcasting dwindled, public broadcasters asked the FCC to allow them to offer more to underwriters than the bare-bones acknowledgement. Today, underwriters are allowed to say not only the name of their business or organization, but also:
  • What they do;
  • Where they are located;
  • Their address, web address or telephone number;
  • Their official motto
There are some things that underwriters can't do, including:
  • Comparisons with other products or service providers;
  • Calls to action ("Come on down to Bob's Bird World for our amazing....");
  • Background music, jingles or sound effects.
If you compare underwriting messages on public radio with the ads on commercial radio, you will find that there is an enormous difference in content and tone (not to mention length). Underwriting messages account for about four minutes per hour on public radio. On commercial radio, it's common for commercials to take up 20 minutes or more per hour.

Michael Popham
Minnesota Public Radio Member Listener Services