In search of media diversity

by JOSEPH TORRES, Hispanic Link

"We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. ...From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented."

So wrote John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish 180 years ago in the inaugural issue of Freedom's Journal, the first African-American newspaper founded in New York City. It is sad that their quote is as relevant today as it was in 1827.

Two centuries later, even though people of color make up a third of the U.S. population, the media are still struggling to integrate diverse voices in news coverage and staffing. Media companies are quick to pledge their support for newsroom diversity, but their actions still fail to match their rhetoric.

The same can be said for the Federal Communications Commission's commitment to fostering greater racial, ethnic and gender diversity on our airwaves. It has failed to take any action on this growing crisis.

And it is a crisis. The national non-profit media reform organization Free Press released a study June 5 that found people of color own just 7.7 percent of the nearly 11,000 radio stations in the United States. African Americans own just 3.4 percent, Latinos 2.9 percent and Asian Americans 0.9 percent of all stations. Women own only 6 percent.

Last fall, the group released a report on local TV stations that found people of color owned just 3.26 percent, of the 1,349 full-power TV stations in the country. African-American owners account for just 1.3 percent; Hispanics 1.1 percent. Women owned just 5 percent.

Both studies found that broadcast owners of color thrive in more competitive, less concentrated markets. But neglecting the issue of non-white ownership is part of the FCC's legacy. It took two decades after the federal government created a commission to regulate the airwaves that the first person of color received a radio license to operate a station. In 1945, Raul Cortez launched WCAR in San Antonio, Texas. Three years later, Jesse Blayton became the first African-American owner of a radio station when he launched WERD in Atlanta.

Three decades following these historic firsts, persons of color barely made up 1 percent of all broadcast station owners when the FCC implemented policies for the first time that provided people of color with greater opportunities to purchase stations. The most effective policy adopted was a "minority tax certificate" program, which provided a tax benefit to broadcasters selling their stations to persons of color. Non-white ownership increased to 3 percent from 1978 to 1995.

Despite this slight increase, people of color still faced challenges, including historic barriers in securing loans. Increases in non-white ownership ended following the repeal of the tax certificate program in 1995 by the newly elected Republican Congress. And passage of the 1996 Telecommunication Act that ushered in a new era of media consolidation.

Radio was most impacted. The '96 act removed national limits for radio ownership that resulted in the purchase or sale of more than 40 percent of the 10,000-plus stations nationwide in just two years. Clear Channel went from owning 40 stations to more than 1,200.

The FCC and federal government have made little effort to address or monitor this matter. Throughout the 1990s, the National Information and Telecommunication Agency conducted an ownership study every two years. Its last study in December 2000 found that media consolidation threatened the future of non-white ownership. But once the Bush administration took office, the studies stopped.

Instead, under new chairman Michael Powell - and intense industry pressure - the FCC tried to unleash further media consolidation. In 2003, the agency voted to relax the broadcast ownership rules that would have permitted one company to own up to three TV stations, eight radio stations and the daily newspaper in larger markets.

But after an unprecedented public outcry against the rule changes which saw some 3 million people contact Congress and the FCC, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the rules in 2004 and criticized the commission for using a flawed methodology to justify its changes and chastised the agency for not addressing efforts to increase non-white ownership.

Despite the court's admonishment and the agency's continuing failure to provide accurate data, the FCC issued a new rulemaking procedure last year and is once again considering relaxing the broadcast ownership rules. It still has not addressed how to bring parity to ownership.

A history of racism and segregation in the United States prevented the integration of the airwaves, not only in ownership, but in the presence of people of color working on radio and TV and in programming addressing the needs of communities of color. Sadly, 180 years after the founding of Freedom's Journal, people of color are still struggling for a chance to "plead their own cause."

It's time we got the chance to speak for ourselves.


Joseph Torres is a government relations manager for Free Press. He is the former deputy director for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and former editor of Hispanic Link Weekly Report.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey