Money and Morals: WBEZ Draws the Line

“I want to share with you an encounter I just had with WBEZ.” So began the E-mail last month from Chuck Hutchcraft, Chicago-area coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee. “I wasn’t asking for free time,” he went on, “but was planning to spend nearly $2,000 for one of those brief blurbs that say ‘Support for this WBEZ program…'”

What Hutchcraft called a blurb WBEZ calls an “underwriting announcement,” and WBEZ has its rules about how they’re worded. Among other things, announcements cannot “contain inducements to buy or calls to action,” and cannot “contain language advocating political, religious or social causes.”

The Friends, a Quaker organization, sent WBEZ a flyer it wanted turned into an underwriting announcement. The flyer said: “Have we given up on peace? No we have not. Candlelight vigil and forum. A community conversation on the need for a moral voice against war.” At the bottom of the flyer were the time and place of the forum.

Account executive Steve Adler massaged the flyer’s language, and here’s what he sent back to Hutchcraft: “Support for this WBEZ program is provided by the American Friends Service Committee, holding a community convention and forum exploring issues of morality and war. This Sunday at 7 PM. Information at”

Well, the point of the forum wasn’t to explore issues of war. It was to oppose war. Hutchcraft says he got back to Adler with alternative language: “holding a community forum and peace vigil proclaiming a moral voice against war with Iraq.” Again Adler said no. He’d checked with his bosses, says Hutchcraft, and “he was told he could not use the word ‘peace,’ ‘candlelight,’ or ‘vigil’ because it would compromise their neutrality. We said basically, ‘We’re a peace organization, and we can’t be neutral about that.'”

So the Friends kept their money, and Hutchcraft fumed. “It is odd,” he observed in his E-mail to me, “that while WBEZ wants to maintain the appearance of neutrality on the questions of this country’s ever-expanding theater of war, [it] will blindly accept sponsorships such as the one we often hear on the station, ‘Support for this WBEZ program is provided by ADM, supermarket to the world.'”

Does Chicago’s public radio station value empty rhetoric above conviction? Adler didn’t want to comment, but my sampling of opinion around the station suggests that people who work there believe WBEZ’s policy is dictated by federal law. That’s not exactly true. The 1934 Communications Act (last revised in 1996) does flatly forbid public radio stations from airing advertising–a message intended to “promote any service, facility, or product”–of a profit-seeking concern. But when the advertiser is a not-for-profit such as the Friends, the stations have a lot of latitude. “The [Communications Act] does not prohibit noncommercial educational stations from airing announcements that promote its own activities, or those of other not-for-profit entities,” a senior FCC attorney told a 1999 National Public Radio conference.

“Law or no law,” counters Torey Malatia, general manager of WBEZ, “I think it’s improper to accept money to push for causes on a public station that’s supposed to be offering information to allow people to make up their own minds.”

Underwriting, says Malatia, covers 18 percent of WBEZ’s $12 million budget and as much as half the budget of some other public stations. “It’s a source of revenue a lot of stations need to use. We need to use it. It’s got to be watched very carefully.”

Asked about that “supermarket to the world” announcement, Malatia makes two points. The first is that the FCC–and WBEZ–allow “bona fide corporate slogans.” Unlike transient campaign slogans, these watchwords are forever. “‘LaSalle, the bank that works.’ That’s a corporate slogan,” he explains. “But they might do something like ‘Free checking and more.’ That’s a campaign. We wouldn’t allow that to be used.”

Malatia’s second point is this: “Just for the record, we haven’t gotten a dime from ADM. That’s all NPR.” NPR sells announcements for the programs it distributes, and it expects stations like WBEZ to carry those announcements unaltered when the programs air. NPR’s standards, Malatia says, are looser than his own.

Consider this announcement: “Support for this program is provided by Microsoft, helping business make the connections to quickly act, react, and succeed. Learn more about software for the agile business at enterprise.”

When this copy arrived a few weeks ago from NPR, WBEZ refused to let its announcers read it. “The implied promise of success is very strong,” says Malatia. “But worse is ‘learn more,’ which is a direct call to action.”

So many other public radio stations reacted the same way that NPR turned to its lawyers for advice and then to the FCC. After hearing from the commission’s staff, NPR declared there was no problem. “I have received about a dozen e-mails focusing on the ‘learn more’ language, and I have read each of them carefully,” executive vice president Ken Stern asserted in an October 4 statement to public radio station managers and development officers. The FCC staff, he explained, had “reinforced” NPR’s conviction that what the FCC meant to prohibit was “calls for specific transactional behavior (‘buy,’ ‘come down and see’). This was never meant to be a prohibition against the use of verbs. While it is understandable that many in public radio have read it differently, this has led to awkward grammatical formulations and the somewhat illogical belief that an implied verb is somehow better than the expressed verb.”

Stern’s argument was that “learn more at” says exactly the same thing as the traditional “information available at” but less clumsily. He let the member stations know that NPR didn’t expect to stand alone in its pro-verb boldness. “Inconsistency in the airing of any credit exposes NPR to charges of negligence and fraud in its dealings with its underwriters,” he warned. “If underwriters came to believe that NPR underwriting credits were not carried in the uniform matter that we have represented, this could have potentially serious adverse consequences for NPR and undermine our resources in a significant way to the detriment of everyone.”

Perhaps it’ll be of some solace to the American Friends Service Committee to learn that WBEZ didn’t budge. “Technically,” Malatia allows, “it’s a violation of the little law between the stations and NPR, because part of the operating agreement when you sign is that you will carry and not edit NPR underwriting. But in our view it’s superseded by the law that gives you the right to broadcast. People who hold the license have that right, and nothing can take it away.”

And perhaps the Friends will be amused to learn that the company they keep–other prominent institutions whose messages were deemed unacceptable by public radio stations–doesn’t end with Microsoft. Station KWMU in Saint Louis solicits “enhanced underwriting,” which Malatia scorns as an “industry euphemism” for spots that in length and language strive to come as close as legally possible to commercial advertising. He sees these as perilous waters: “You’re dealing with the commercial world. You’re dealing with ad-agency time buyers, with people who buy commercial radio and TV. You’re in their world.”

Five years ago KWMU heard from Michael Cuffley, who said that he admired All Things Considered and believed that by helping to underwrite it he might attract a better class of people to the organization he ran. In its length and detail, the copy he submitted makes an excellent example of an enhanced message:

“The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a White Christian organization, standing up for rights and values of White Christian America since 1865. For more information, please contact the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, at P.O. Box 525, Imperial, Missouri 63052. Let your voice be heard!”

The question of what to do about this business proposition shot up the ladder to the chancellor of the University of Missouri-Saint Louis, which operates the station. KWMU told Cuffley it would not accept the KKK as an underwriter. The Klan sued.

The alternative, chancellor Blanche Touhill testified in federal court, was financial disaster. She predicted that if her school’s radio station accepted the Klan’s money and acknowledged the gift–which it would be legally bound to do–annual gifts to UMSL would drop by 20 percent, or $2 million a year, and 25 percent of the 1,565 black students and 10 percent of the 9,142 white students would leave the school, at a further cost of more than $3 million a year.

The Klan argued that KWMU’s enhanced underwriting program was a straightforward revenue-generating operation “administered by sales people with business concerns, not journalists with editorial concerns.” The station was a public institution, supported by taxpayers, that sold advertising space, and the Klan meant to purchase some of it. The Klan drew a parallel between its suit and the successful suit filed by Planned Parenthood against the Chicago Transit Authority in the mid-80s when the CTA, touchy about abortion, refused to sell Planned Parenthood ad space in its trains and buses.

Three years went by before KWMU prevailed in the court of appeals. The court brushed aside the CTA precedent, reasoning that an underwriting announcement wasn’t the same as an advertisement (for all the attempts of some stations and underwriters to blur the difference), and that advertising was “incidental” to the CTA’s primary function of providing transportation, while announcements of funding sources relate “to the journalistic purposes of the station.”

Among the countless differences between the Ku Klux Klan and the American Friends Service Committee, the most significant here is that the Klan wanted to tap into an unfamiliar and unlikely audience while the Friends asked public radio to help it reach kindred spirits. “It’s not like we have a Pacifica Radio or something,” says the Reverend Dan Dale, director of Agape House at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a planner of the Friends’ peace forum. “In terms of the Chicago area, this is the only station for progressive folks in town, and if they start saying we can’t use the word ‘peace’–and we’re not talking about editorial policy, we’re talking about a paid ad–it’s very worrisome.” He doesn’t want WBEZ to become just another “corporate mouthpiece.”

“Our function,” Malatia responds, “is to have a free discussion of all kinds of issues on the air, and if we put ourselves in the position of taking dollars to advocate for public, social, or religious concerns on the air, it puts into question those very free discussions. It puts into question our ability to talk about those things in an objective way if there’s an exchange of dollars taking place elsewhere.

“Ultimately, I think it leads you down the path where you find yourself, as Saint Louis did, in a position where you really have no policy to point to when the time comes to reject something you really need to reject.”

Next time the Friends might do better trying to post their message on the Red Line. So might the Ku Klux Klan.

Public Appearances

All anonymous diatribes are scurrilous, of course, but some are slyer than others. The subject of the unsigned screed that arrived here last week was the Tribune’s October 8 coverage of the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new $17.5 million addition to the Medill School of Journalism. The five-column-wide story in the Metro section reported that the new facility “was funded primarily by a donation from the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation,” which in the past 15 years “has provided more than $25 million in support to Medill and to the Media Management Center.”

The Tribune offered a picture of various jubilant dignitaries, one of them Dean Loren Ghiglione holding his scissors high. “Don’t even hazard a guess as to how many news releases about bigger, more expensive and more important facilities at other universities have been dropped in the circular files on the fourth floor of Trib Tower,” my unknown correspondent snickered. “And the photo is about as hackneyed as they get: a bunch of 50- or 60-something white guys in suits yukking it up….The picture desk probably laughs off a thousand of those a year.”

Now the letter got down to its nefarious business. “Does all of this help explain [Ghiglione’s] unflinching support of the Tribune’s actions in virtually every news medium in the country during the Trib’s Bob Greene scandal?” True enough, Ghiglione seemed to be everywhere then. He showed up on Chicago Tonight; he was quoted in Chicago magazine’s on-line “Press Box.” Here’s what he told Time magazine: “What [Greene] did was an abuse of personal power and an abuse of the newspaper he worked for.”

“It was probably just serendipity, not synergy,” continued the nameless negativist, “but you know the Tribune newsroom cynics would have a field day with a public official who came to the defense of a scandal-mired public institution only to find out that the person’s enterprise got an infusion of cash from the besmirched institution.”

It’s an entertaining point, though the parallel collapses with its presumption that the Tribune is or ever was scandal-mired because of Bob Greene. Those newsroom cynics know better. If doubt seized the city when Greene suddenly disappeared, the Tribune pretty much got the benefit of it.

Ghiglione says that because no one at the Tribune would talk when Greene went down, a lot of reporters wound up calling him. Ghiglione said what he thought. What he thought favored the Tribune.

Given the new building about to be opened, did he realize the position he was in?

“Of course,” he said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.