If the FCC Rule Changes Survive, Minority Broadcasting May Not

Article excerpt

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934, it has been charged with regulating the public's airwaves and preventing the monopolization of broadcasting. Yet on June 2, the FCC voted 3-2, along party lines, to adopt rules that will make it more difficult for new entrants, particularly women and minority-owned companies, to survive in the broadcasting business. The agency eased rules on local television mergers, allowing companies to own as many as three television stations in the largest markets. The order was a clear indication of FCC Chairman Michael Powell's intention to deregulate, further excluding minorities and reducing diversity in the media.

The FCC (a five-member commission appointed by the president and approved by the Senate) reasoned that the decades-old regulations were obsolete in part because of the rise of the Internet and other new technologies such as digital cable. The new rules have faced challenges in Congress. On July 23, by a stunning 400-21 vote, the House of Representatives moved to repeal the portion of the FCC rules that would allow the nation's largest television networks to own more stations. The Senate has undertaken similar efforts to roll back the changes. But the new FCC rules met their greatest opposition on Sept. 3, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia issued an order to block the changes, which would have gone into effect the next day.

The June 2 decision is part of a larger struggle between the gatekeepers of the airwaves, the FCC, and supporters of media diversity and minority ownership. Civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC), the National Urban League and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters - to name a few - have sought an end to decades of discrimination in the radio and television industries.

Historically, the television and radio networks have been old-boy business structures. Few minorities and women have enjoyed opportunities to appear in positive roles in entertainment programming, to serve as newscasters, or to own broadcast stations. That started to change in the 1970s, as racially integrated companies competing with non-minority-owned companies argued that minority ownership should be considered as a plus when the FCC granted new licenses and managed the radio frequency spectrum.

In 1977, Richard Wiley, the FCC chairman at the time, who was appointed by President Nixon, ordered an examination of how the FCC's rales could be amended to promote minority ownership. The following year, Wiley's review led to the adoption of policies aimed at encouraging White media owners to sell stations to minorities. The most important of these, the tax certificate policy, allowed companies selling broadcast stations to minorities to defer the payment of capital gains taxes. Thanks largely to this policy, minority radio and television ownership increased from 60 to more than 300 stations between 1978 and 1995.

Further, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) rules, adopted in 1969 and enforced vigorously in the 1970s, helped transform broadcasting from an almost exclusively White preserve to a fairly well integrated profession.

Nonetheless, since 1981, the FCC has vigorously pursued deregulation of the "structural ownership regulations" that determine how many broadcast stations a company can own locally or nationally. Most notoriously, the Telecommunications Act passed by Congress in 1996 and signed into law by President Clinton, removed all limits on national radio station ownership and allowed a single company to own as many as eight radio stations in most large cities.

The shakeout in broadcast ownership has left minority and female broadcasters struggling to maintain an already minuscule share of the industry. Today, for example, minorities only own 4.2 percent of all radio stations and 1. …