To avoid a hefty FCC fine, station owners shouldn’t let their staff get too carried away with April Fool’s Day on-air material and events.
“Resist the temptation to broadcast a hoax of any sort,” says Garvey Schubert Barer partner Erwin Krasnow. Remember that the FCC’s rules prohibit broadcasting false information about a crime or catastrophe if it’s likely the broadcast will cause substantial public harm and if, in fact, public harm occurs, he adds in a client note.
Stay away from gags involving earthquakes, tsunamis, and nuclear power plant disasters; they’re all are particularly likely to draw complaints and FCC enforcement action.
A hoax that causes the police force to divert resources or that causes the destruction of property or a traffic back-up as members of the public try to avoid Martians are all examples of possible instances of substantial harm.
One type of hoax requires special mention — the blind phone call that’s part of a prank. For example, stations have been known to call people to falsely advise them that they have won an award or even to advise them of a fictitious family tragedy (such as a death in the family or the spouse’s running off with a best friend), according to Krasnow.
Any phone call that does not first advise the called party that the call is being aired or is being taped for future broadcast cannot be used over the airwaves even though that prior notice spoils all the fun. This violates FCC rules (Section 73.1206) and something for which the FCC consistently fines the offending station.
For a summary of the FCC’s policy governing hoaxes, see http://www.fcc.gov/eb/broadcast/hoaxes.html.