The parent company of the radio station that broadcasts Harley Belew’s weekday morning talk show may have to provide free air time to Konrad Wert, his opponent in the race for the Precinct 1 seat on the Kerr County Commissioners Court.
A provision of the Federal Communications Act of 1934 requires that when a political candidate appears on the air, any other candidate may request air time for an equal fee within seven days of the appearance of the first candidate, according to Michael Schneider, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Texas Association of Broadcasters.
This puts radio stations in a bind if their employees run for office, as the FCC rule kicks in even if the employee isn’t discussing their campaign and even if they’re not identified.
“For example, a sheriff in east Texas did a 30-minute long fishing show, and the station essentially faced the dilemma of, ‘Do we cancel a popular fishing show or do we come up with some sort of agreement with the opposing candidate?’” Schneider said.
According to a California Broadcasters Association manual, opposing candidates “have no obligation to grant waivers of their full equal opportunity rights, and absent such a voluntary agreement a use would be triggered every time a candidate employee appears on the air.”
When an employee who’s also a candidate is on the air, the FCC considers this a “free use” of air time, which entitles opposing candidates to free air time, Schneider said.
“The station is under no obligation to tell opposing candidates about the FCC rule, but often what stations do is try to work out an agreement with the opposing candidate for free time,” Schneider said.
There are typically a couple of stations in Texas that encounter this issue each election season, and it usually happens in local races, such as for city council and school board, Schneider said.
“The other option stations have is to take the employee off the air, which happens on occasion, which is a shame, because somebody is essentially being penalized for being a broadcast employee,” Schneider said.
Political candidates who perform public service announcements or voiceover work over the public airwaves also trigger this FCC equal opportunity rule, whereas their appearances in news broadcasts and documentaries do not, Schneider said.
An opposing candidate isn’t entitled to all the “free time” the employee-candidate received over the course of his or her employment, only to the amount of time used within the last seven days, Schneider said. Belew’s last broadcast, which was about three hours long, including commercials, was Sept. 18.
The FCC requires radio stations to maintain web-based “political files” that “must contain all requests for specific schedules of advertising time by candidates and certain issue advertisers, as well as the final dispositions or ‘deals’ agreed to by the broadcaster and the advertiser in response to any requests,” but it’s not necessary for a station “to retain any of the materials relating to the negotiation between the parties to reach the disposition.”
Nothing about the Wert/Belew matter was in the station’s political file as of Friday. Radio Ranch LLC General Manager Corina Hazelett said Friday that she couldn’t comment on the matter. Wert, who qualified to become a write-in candidate in the November General Election in his bid to unseat incumbent Belew, also refused to comment.