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Underwriting Guidelines

Dear Mr Brookbank,

Thanks for the very interesting questions.

Listing underwriters online is not a requirement of the FCC or CPB. We keep a comprehensive monthly list in our public file as they require, and the online version serves as an additional benefit we provide to underwriters who have agreed to support us on an ongoing basis, so it’s not comprehensive. I agree that may be confusing. A quick comprehensive monthly list posted separately online every month should not be difficult, so thanks for bringing it to my attention. November isn’t over, so we’ll have it up shortly after the month is done. We don’t maintain a list NPR’s national underwriters.

SPR management is very comfortable publicizing who underwrites what programs. We routinely acknowledge their support on-air. You’ve heard them yourself and this speaks to this very transparency. In fact it’s an FCC requirement to broadcast these announcements within FCC-mandated guidelines. It’s also good to maintain a wide variety of underwriters, and we have support from large, small, national, state, regional, and local businesses and organizations. For underwriting (about 19% of our annual budget), we accept, with very few exceptions, most businesses and organizations operating within legal parameters.

Any concerns about the possibility of revenue influencing the news are important and should be addressed. Various media have had a long history of questionable issues concerning fairness, balance, yellow journalism, payola, and the like. And so public broadcasting was given strict guidelines concerning these very issues. And yes, we therefore have “firewalls.” These are administrative barriers between revenue and the news. These firewalls help protect the autonomy of the news. And it actually helps our brand as a balanced and fair news source. So I’ll repeat my oft-repeated position: SPR news will not knowingly or intentionally be influenced by underwriters or supporters--national, state, regional, or local. And like NPR, we make every effort to cover both sides of a story. Most complaints occur when a listener hears one side without the other which may have occurred earlier or will occur later. Radio is still linear.

The article I wrote prompted by your last similar enquiry explains underwriting in a bit more detail. This article has remained on our website (and your comments remain on our Facebook site) as the questions you raise are important ones. You can see that the answers haven’t changed substantially since the last time. As for an ombudsman, NPR has one, but SPR can’t afford much beyond operational essentials. For the moment, we have a community advisory board that fulfills this role.   

Thanks again for your concern about public radio and our policies. They are important questions.

Original comment:

Could I get some clarification, please?

This is not a full list of "current underwriters", is it? I do not see, for example, billionaire Warren Buffett's oil and coal-hauling Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) - whose advertising spot (I know it is "officially" called underwriting) I heard on your KSFC frequency on Thanksgiving morning. If it is not a full list, could you post a full one?

Perhaps that is because it is not a small business but then neither is Washington Trust Bank and a few others on the list.

Or prehaps it is because it not local. But then Oregon-based Umpqua Bank (also not exactly a "small business") is on the list.

Is it because BNSF's underwriting is not something SPR, KPBX, KSFC and KPBZ broadcasters and management are comfortable publicizing given BNSF's 2005 contamination of the aquifer providing Spokane area's sole source of drinking water or are concerned about opposition to BNSF coal and oil-bomb trains rolling through downtown Spokane? 

Or is it due to reasonable concerns that "underwriting" advertising influences the newsroom and editorial decisions at SPR? 

In the absence of a public ombudsman for SPR and its three stations, could you please provide a detailed response here on this thread, as well as go beyond the oft-heard and indignant "we have a firewall between our news and underwriting departments"?

Thank you in advance for hearing me out and responding!

Dr. Cary Boyce (Doctor of Music, Indiana University Jacobs School of Music) was the President and General Manager of Spokane Public Radio from 2012-2024. Before coming to SPR, he was Station Operations Director at WFIU Public Radio licensed to Indiana University. Cary is also an Emmy Award-winning composer (Harp Dreams, PBS special, 2011) whose work involves contemporary music, interdisciplinary arts, and how music relates to our modern world.
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