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Drawing the Line: A Guide to Avoiding Illegal Content for the On-Air Performer

As the sources of content available to the public proliferate, attracting and retaining an audience grows more challenging. A common strategy is to use provocative or “attention-getting” on-air elements to increase station awareness among media-saturated listeners and viewers. However, stations must be mindful of the numerous legal restrictions on content, particularly given that illegal on-air content can garner fines as high as $325,000 per violation. In addition, certain types of illegal on-air content can subject a broadcaster to civil and criminal liability, as well as loss of its license.

Familiarity with the FCC’s rules regarding on-air content is not optional for on-air talent, station programmers or station management. In most cases, editorial judgments made in advance, especially in the case of syndicated or pre-recorded programming, can prevent illegal content from reaching the air. It is therefore important that those involved in airing broadcast programming be up-to-date on the boundary lines that the FCC and the courts have drawn to distinguish legal from illegal on-air content.

This guide is not meant to constitute legal advice or to represent an exhaustive survey of permissible and impermissible on air activity. Rather, it is intended to provide general information to the on air performer regarding FCC rules and policies in the following eleven areas directly affecting on air speech:

  • Obscenity
  • Indecency
  • Fairness Doctrine
  • Libel, Commercial Disparagement, and Invasion of Privacy
  • Rebroadcasting Telephone Conversations
  • Rebroadcasting Emergency Communications
  • Airing “Bartnicki” Material
  • News Crew “Ride-Alongs
  • Payola and Plugola
  • Promoting Lotteries, Casinos, and Station Contests
  • On Air Hoaxes

A PDF version of this entire article can be found at Drawing the Line: A Guide to Avoiding Illegal Content for the On-Air Performer.