The Color of Voices

by Deborah Taylor Tate on December 27, 2012

Radio SoundboardIn December of 2007, I had the honor of voting for adoption of 13 specific action steps in an FCC Order aimed at improving the dire situation regarding minorities and women as it relates to media-especially top level control and ownership.

Commissioner Robert McDowell and I recognized the plethora of sources and resources available to citizens – far beyond the local newspaper or TV stations of yesteryear.  Millions – literally – of news sites are available at the click of a key;  in print, audio, and video, 24/7 and at little if any cost. While the world of access to news and information has been completely transformed, the once necessary oversight of media ownership has not; especially as it relates to cross ownership. As the FCC touts its commitment to broadband in every home, it should also recognize at the same time that our citizens have ubiquitous access to global voices for news and information, and this should result in rolling back of antiquated ownership rules of decades past.

And while the FCC took several important steps in 2007 to move toward lessening prescriptive ownership rules in the largest markets, it ignored the small markets – which may be the worst hit by restrictions on broadcasters’ ability to merge and thus gain the economies of scale it takes for real, in-depth newsgathering in competition with online media in today’s information society.

While very proud of the small yet significant steps we took in 2007 – including adopting an historic nondiscrimination in advertising requirement – the current FCC has failed to use its significant powers to do much else to advance minority and female participation in the media. The latest FCC draft media ownership decision spends over 30 pages recounting legal arguments against any action regarding policies that would help minority and female ownership, although there are dozens of pending proposals that do not run afoul of the Supreme Court’s standards for race-conscious actions.

Indeed it was Justice Kennedy who said, in 2007, that even when the government cannot adopt race-based programs, it can and should “take account” of and adopt race-neutral ones.

There remain numerous such race-neutral recommendations – 42 of which have been endorsed by the FCC’s own Advisory Committee on Diversity. Many of these could be undertaken with little if any legal challenge.

“Taking account” should be step one.

What are all the possible regulatory and deregulatory actions the FCC could take to enhance women and minority involvement and owernship? If there have been no studies, fund a few. If there is no research about what “works”, put some money into finding that out. I’m sure Geena Davis, my co-chair of the Healthy Media Commission, would happily share her ten years of research regarding content providers. Start a pilot – that has been done to correct other woes such as the lack of connectivity to rural healthcare providers. Host a forum with Wall Street or private equity firms, like the one Erin Burnett emceed for the FCC Diversity Committee in Harlem in 2007.

In the midst of the FCC’s total inaction, several positive things have actually been occurring in the private sector.

The Healthy Media Commission, an outgrowth of a Capitol Hill summit regarding how women are portrayed by media-across all platforms and technologies – has been busy creating a blueprint for the inclusion of more women across all media–both on and off screen.  Supported by the NAB, NCTA, the Creative Coalition and the Girl Scouts, the commission studied in-depth research about potential solutions and best practices. Many companies already have successful internship and scholarship programs for girls/women.  Others have mentoring programs targeting young female and diverse junior executives to move them up the ranks. And, according to a recent survey, the vast majority of media executives surveyed said that if armed with the knowledge of the lack of women in high level positions and in leading roles, they were willing to solve that problem. While it will take time, the good news is that with education, corporate leaders and industry leaders alike can implement solutions that will add more women in healthy, active roles in content as well as in the C-suite. These efforts will hopefully get more diverse voices in the pipeline and then help keep them there.

Another nongovernmental leading policy maker, the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) has also been working on female and minority issues through training and access to capital opportunities. While the economy took its toll on a lot of radio stations, MMTC saw this as an opportunity to work with corporate leaders to have those stations turned into a “win-win” by providing a tax deduction for the donor as well as an incubator for a new owner- in many cases a female or minority.

Rather than waiting on Congress to pass a new tax certificate bill – which they should immediately pass – MMTC created a private sector program that mirrors that exact concept. There have been 8 full power radio stations and 89 LPTV stations donated to date.  In Minneapolis, Clear Channel Communications donated a failing radio station that, with training, entrepreneurship and mentoring – and almost no debt obligations – is now the first voice for the Hmong population, operated by a Laotian entrepreneur.  62,000 people who had no “local radio” station now have and hear their own voices, discussing issues of concern to them, in their own language.

So, while the FCC fiddles with “loosening” the media ownership rules a millimeter or two, private and corporate entities are changing the size, shape and color of what we see and hear on our airwaves, in the C suite and in the owners circle.

My former colleague Commissioner Mike Copps and I probably don’t agree about much regarding media ownership, but we do agree on one thing that he suggested over 5 years ago. The FCC should commit to review and vote on some of those 71 long-pending minority ownership proposals every month.  Up or down.  Just please do something in 2013 to ensure that women and minorities can participate fully in America’s broadcasting industry.

    • Deborah TateHon. Deborah Taylor Tate is a member of the MMTC Board of Directors, co-chair of Healthy MEdia: Commission for Positives Images of Women and Girls, and a former FCC commissioner.
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