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Where’s the Social Justice in That?

Honig laments ‘abysmal’ levels of minority broadcast ownership

David Honig is president of the Minority Media & Telecom Council. He spoke in January to the annual MMTC Broadband and Social Justice Summit. Here are excerpts of his remarks:

Despite the FCC’s recognition that diverse participation is critical to broadcasting, minority broadcast ownership levels are abysmal and shrinking fast. Between 2007 and 2009, minority full-power commercial radio ownership dropped by 9 percent, and minority full-power commercial television ownership actually dropped by one-third.

David Honig

So if the commission recognizes that diversity is an important tenet in communications policy, why is minority broadcast ownership being allowed to disappear? Is broadcasting no longer relevant?

The truth is that Americans continue to rely, overwhelmingly, on radio and television for news, entertainment and emergency information. The president’s State of the Union address had over 25 million viewers, network news still draws 22 million nightly viewers, and 93 percent of Americans tuned in to AM or FM radio each week in 2010. Never is broadcasting more important than in times of emergency, when concerned Americans turn to television and radio over online news and other sources. Thus broadcasting couldn’t be more relevant.

Further, in a multicultural and multilingual society, minority media ownership is the key to serving all Americans. Minority and non-minority audiences differ widely in their radio programming preferences. A 2011 FCC study found that while most minority-owned stations broadcast minority-oriented programming, “most minority-targeted stations are not minority-owned … [however] the presence of minority-owned stations in a market appears to raise the amount of minority-targeted programming.”

One success story that we can point to is that in 2007, the FCC voted 5–0 to create the Advertising Nondiscrimination Rule banning “no urban dictates” and “no Spanish dictates” — that is, instructions from advertisers to their agencies saying “don’t advertise on Black and Spanish radio.” Of course the reason for these instructions is that some advertisers don’t want what they consider to be too many African Americans and Latinos in their stores.

That’s against the law now. It took NABOB and MMTC 24 years to get it onto the books and three more years to get it enforced. The first federal civil rights rule of any kind ever adopted with no opposition! And right now, potentially the most far-reaching civil rights rule the FCC has on its books — a rule whose strict enforcement would deliver minority broadcasters about $200 million in revenue that they earn each year, but never collect.

Did you know that the FCC has a cable procurement rule? Since 1993, cable companies have been required to reach out to minority suppliers for procurement. Have you ever heard of a case being brought under that rule? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t, because the FCC hasn’t brought any.

We often get asked about the minority ownership initiatives like the Tax Certificate Policy, the Distress Sale Policy and the Telecom Development Fund. Everything’s gone, including the Fund, which has been zeroed out in the federal budget. And several of the initiatives adopted in the 2007 Diversity Order are now gone thanks to the FCC’s failure to adopt a meaningful definition of eligible entities, despite the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ expectation for it to do so.

Unintended consequences

But the greatest danger to social justice is the negligence of those who profess to care. The negligence of people who ought to know better. …

The people running the FCC now are very bright. They’re sincere. They’re idealistic. They’re not racists. They’re well-meaning. But they often wear blinders. What their blinders cause them to miss is the law of unintended consequences.

The media ownership rules provide the perfect backdrop for a demonstration of the law of unintended consequences. Unfortunately, many broadcasters have failed to recognize that consolidation has deeply diminished minority broadcast ownership. Because of the TV duopoly rule, half of the full-power commercial TV stations owned by minorities in 1999 are no longer minority-owned today.

Many solutions to the minority ownership crisis are on the table, and one that’s especially promising is the “Incubator Proposal.” Under this proposal, a broadcaster that finances or incubates a disadvantaged business — bringing a new voice in the marketplace — would be permitted to obtain a waiver of the ownership limits for one additional station. This race-neutral, win-win proposal has been pending before the FCC, without opposition, in six dockets for 22 years, so hopefully this year will be the charm. …

Fight the long fight

What can we do for social justice in our industries right now? MMTC is doing two things:

First, we’re building MMTC as an institution that will have the resources, the people and the skills to fight the long fight. From our conferences, our advocacy and our weblog we are building a community for social justice in the digital age.

Second, we are focusing attention on where our national priorities should be. For broadband, that means universal access, adoption and informed use. And in every communications industry, it means vastly increased minority ownership and career participation.

In order to succeed, we need you to raise your voice with ours. Our media, telecom and broadband industries are the most influential in the nation. They comprise one-sixth of our economy. They are the greatest sources of job growth. They will make or break our future. The policies we put in place today will either allow us to realize the opportunities promised by evolving technology or lock in permanent second-class citizenship.

The full text of Honig’s remarks is at