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FCC Introduces New Incubator Program

The media diversity initiative will pair established broadcasters with new broadcasters or struggling stations

WASHINGTON — Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission announced the terms of the media diversity incubator program it promised last November — more than 28 years since the idea was first floated.

The FCC says the program is intended “to assist new, small, or struggling voices, including women and minorities, in overcoming the key barriers to entry into the broadcast sector.”This will be accomplished by pairing “established broadcasters” with “small new entrants or existing struggling stations for a three-year incubation period,” according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s statement about MB Docket No. 17-289. During that time, the incubator station will provide “mentoring, financial, engineering, and/or technical assistance and operational support” to the partner station.

At the end of the incubation period, the partnerships will individually be determined to be successful if the “incubated entity” is now the owner of a new full-service station or if the “previously struggling station” is in a better position, according to Pai.

If that’s deemed to be the case, the incubator may then apply for a “waiver of the FCC’s local radio ownership rule that it can use in the incubated market or a comparable market,” according to the announcement.

Pai noted the “National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters first advanced the idea to the FCC way back in 1990, and the FCC first sought comment on it in 1992. And in the last 26 years, the proposal has been discussed in no fewer than seven different dockets.”The Report and Order (FCC 18-114) is backed by Chairman Ajit Pai, Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr.

However, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel dissented because the “action will do too little to change that reality for too many who have waited too long.” She specifically called out the problem of ownership consolidation and its affect on media diversity — which the initiative may inadvertently make worse by allowing some incubator stations to receive a waiver of the Local Radio Ownership Rule.

Rosenworcel said, “Media ownership matters because what we see and hear over the air says so much about who we are as individuals, as communities, and as a nation. Study a bit of history and you can only come to one conclusion: consolidation will make our stations look less and less like the communities they serve.”

National Association of Broadcasters Executive Vice President of Communications Dennis Wharton’s statement was more approving. “NAB applauds the FCC for creating an incubator program that will help new entrants realize their dream of radio station ownership. Incubators are key to breaking down financial and operational barriers to entry for underrepresented communities interested in media ownership.”

Wharton also said, “NAB encourages the FCC to extend this initiative to local TV station ownership as well.”But the commission’s announcement explained that the program is specific to full-service radio because “the costs of obtaining and operating radio stations make the radio sector a significantly more accessible entry point than television for entities with limited capital resources and operational experience.” Pai’s statement also pointed out “there is an appropriate incentive that is within our authority to grant to incubating stations” — meaning the waiver — which would not be available to TV stations.