Florida FM Station Rebrands as ‘Trump Country’ — Is It Legal?

A Fort Myers, Florida rock station on the FM dial flipped to a country format Wednesday, but not just any country format: it’s “Trump Country.” An FCC-licensed radio station branding its entire identity around supporting a political candidate in the days leading up to an election seems to be unprecedented in anyone’s memory, if not in history.

In its initial time on the air under the new format, the station appeared to be operating sans DJs, with a steady diet of country music hits interrupted by recordings of a Donald Trump impersonator. The tone was unabashedly pro-Trump, if only mildly political, with the station’s fake president sending out messages like one in which he said he was enjoying all the boat parades in his honor and thought they needed a station to help soundtrack their support. Other bumpers went along the lines of: “Look, my whole life is about winning. Now I’m winning in radio.” “Sleepy Joe and Kamala want to raise your taxes, so we’re giving you great country music for free.” And: “Now that they’ve heard Trump Country 93.7 in Southwest Florida, Joe Biden decided to buy a radio station in Delaware. Yeah, I heard it’s called Fake News 2020. Nice. So nice.”

It’s been radio silence, so to speak, when reporters (including Variety‘s) have attempted to contact either the Federal Communications Commission or station owner Sun Broadcasting for comment. The station, WXNX, was offering a feed of its programming immediately after the flip, but that website has now gone dead, limiting listenership to the immediate area.

Casual radio listeners often invoke equal-time laws, but those have not been particularly stringent in the post-deregulation era, and radio experts say these apply to leaving ad sales open to conflicting viewpoints more than ensuring any balance of viewpoints on the air.

In a story published on the website Floridapolitics.com, Susan Nilon, executive director of the the International Intellectual Policy Institute, said that the station could probably claim the ongoing Trump impersonation falls into the realm of parody, with or without overtly comedic content, but that even a more serious endorsement effort would likely be protected as free speech by the station cluster’s owner.

Nilon added that WXNX might be be in hotter water if Trump decided that the station was using the branding and impersonation to imply his commercial endorsement, although the president coming after a station that is trying to boost him in a swing state in 2020 seems highly unlikely.

Local commenters on social media seemed more upset about the loss of a favorite rock station than the new pro-Trump bent. “I bet everybody who got a 93X tattoo feels really stupid now,” wrote one Facebook commenter, seeming to refer to a promotion held by the old format.

Most radio observers expect the “Trump Country” branding to be a short-lived publicity stunt to give a new country station some buzz in a market that already has several in that format. There may be little downside for the station among non-Trump supporters, since the tri-county area surrounding Fort Myers went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by some of the biggest margins in Florida in the 2016 election.

The station’s Facebook page has been deactivated, along with its website. Attempts to leave a message with Sun Broadcast Group — which also operates a Fox News station, among several others, in the Fort Myers area — were unsuccessful.

How untenable will the branding seem if Trump loses on Nov. 3? By that time, the station may have already switched to a less political brand and, who knows, added actual non-impersonator DJs. Or Nov. 4 could just be the occasion of another flip: As many have pointed out, that is no longer too early for stations nationwide to begin switching to an all-Christmas format.

 

 

 

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