Before Social Media There Was Radio

Author: Elsa Abruzzo
Whether you believe Marconi invented radio when he transmitted the first signal in 1895 or that Tesla did in 1892 with his basic design for radios, one thing is certain: radio by far preceded the Internet, which first became available to the common public in 1992. So why focus on radio in this GPP Blog post? I recently started hosting a radio show, and as a result, am more in tune to radio as a promotional media. After all, you can’t really use Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn while driving, but you can listen to your trusty radio during your two-hour commute to and from work each day. So remember this media weapon in your promotional arsenal. You can always provide your catchy web and social media site addresses to listeners on radio promos.

Before I could become a local radio host, I had to pass a test on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s regulations regarding “payola” (an undisclosed agreement to accept payment for on-air promotion of a product or service) and “plugola” (on-air endorsement of goods or services in which a broadcast station or its employee has a financial interest). As I learned more and more about the rules of my new field, I noticed some interesting similarities between general regulations for radio and general GPP and compliance practices for healthcare.

First, let’s be clear that in addition to passing the FCC’s test, every potential on-air employee of the giant multimedia conglomerate that owns the AM station that carries our little radio program must complete a computer training course. One of our hosts is 91 years old (unbelievable, yes), but even he got no reprieve on this. I believe this stringency is due to a FCC mandate (at least for this company), perhaps resulting from previous infractions. It is, in essence, a consent decree. As you have probably gathered by now, the FCC is to radio and TV what the FDA is to the life sciences industry. I am proud to say that I passed the test on my first try, and glad too, as you can’t be on the Air otherwise. Moreover, all employees have to retake this test every year. As in our industry, the radio station and its parent company have a big stake in remaining compliant; penalties for payola/plugola violations can be as high as $250,000 and can threaten a station’s license.

Transparency reigns supreme in the regulatory world, whether in media communications, healthcare or finance. In the case of radio, if a broadcast station or an employee receives any kind of compensation in exchange for airing something, a full, over-the-air disclosure of the sponsorship must be made. The underlying premise of payola/plugola regulations is that members of the public have a right to know when material is being aired because the broadcaster or its employees have a financial interest in doing so. In the healthcare industry, this is similar to the need for financial disclosure for investigators in clinical trials, and balancing risk and benefit information in drug and device promotions. As with payola and plugola, it is not the payment, but the lack of disclosure and sponsorship identification that makes the transaction illegal. You can draw other similarities to GPPs, GMPs, and GCPs, but the bottom line is that, when it comes to information, you have to give the good with the bad and disclose, disclose, disclose.

My third and last point of comparison for this blog post is that, whether in the form of the FDA or the FCC, Big Brother is always watching. Aside from issuing various payola and plugola violations last year, the FCC also kept a watchful eye on its other important duties. With seven bureaus and ten offices nationwide, the FCC, like the FDA is big and far-reaching. Its bureaus alone include: Consumer & Governmental Affairs, Enforcement Bureau, International Bureau, Media Bureau, Wireless Telecommunications, Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau, and Wireline Competition Bureau. The FCC also utilizes five Commissioners appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for 5-year terms. Because the FCC also happens to regulate public safety, it may have some closely related, and even overlapping, responsibilities with the FDA. For example, a recent independent study on wireless “smart meters” installed by PG&E to monitor energy usage in California entertained the possibility that the meters may violate the FCC’s safety limits due to high radiofrequency radiation levels during installation and operation. The study also explored possible health risks, including headaches and heart palpitations, resulting from the meters.

So to those of us in the healthcare world, we can feel a little better knowing that we are not the only ones dealing with regulations and regulators. I also hope you can breathe a little easier knowing the FCC is looking out for us, and that good compliance practices are common to other industries.

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