When Federal Communications Commissioners (FCC) Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps arrived in Chicago the night before the September 20 FCC public hearing, the two headed straight for Delilah’s, a hipster bar on the city’s north side, where Adelstein joined local punk legend John Langford on the harmonica.
That’s not the only thing that distinguishes Copps and Adelstein from their fellow commissioners.
Every U.S. president appoints three of the five FCC commissioners from his (or her) party, with the other two seats reserved for the minority party. Adelstein and Copps, the token Democrats on the board, have consistently championed Net neutrality, community access to low-power radio signals and caps for how many media outlets one company can own in a given market. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has done anything but.
After the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated radio ownership, media giants gobbled up their smaller counterparts, which, according to the FCC’s own data, has transferred control of the airwaves into the hands of a powerful few.
Martin has lobbied hard in recent years to extend the joys of deregulation to the television industry and lift restrictions on “cross-ownership” that prevent any one company from owning too many newspapers, radio stations and television stations in a single market.
Congress created the FCC in 1934 to ensure that media companies act as “public trustees,” serving the needs and interests of the local community as a form of payment for their free access to public airwaves. But, as Copps said during his opening statements at the Chicago hearing, “for the past 25 years, the FCC has been asleep at the switch.”
Chicago is a microcosm of the state of the media across the country. People of color make up 63 percent of Chicago’s population but own only 5 percent of the city’s radio and TV stations. Nationally, according to a recent study by media watchdog group Free Press, people of color make up 35 percent of the overall population, but own only 3 percent of TV stations and 8 percent of radio stations.
“Is it any wonder why the depictions of minorities in our media are so often distorted?” Copps asked the crowd of 800-plus at the hearing. “Why their issues get scant coverage? Why their contributions to the good things happening in America are so seldom even mentioned on the air? Let’s be frank, ownership matters. Truth be told, ownership rules.”
This isn’t news to the FCC, which reported in 1995 that steps needed to be taken to correct the race and gender imbalance in media ownership. In 2002, the commission reported that the 1996 law led to a 35-percent decrease in the number of radio station owners. Yet, in 2003, they passed a law to extend deregulation of the radio industry and loosen “cross-ownership” caps regulating the television and newspaper industries.
However, that same year, a federal appellate court stopped the FCC dead in its tracks, declaring the loosening of caps as “inconsistent with the commission’s obligation to make broadcast spectrum available to all people ‘without discrimination on the basis of race.’” It ordered the agency to try again.
In response, the FCC decided to hold a series of six public hearings to solicit community feedback on “localism” and “diversity” in the media before it moved to deregulate any further. Chicago was the fifth in the series, and citizens came out in droves to participate.
In a phone interview after the event, Adelstein said, “In Chicago, the real seething concern in the minority community came through loud and clear, particularly by some of the artists who spoke.”
One of the most provocative was hip-hop legend KRS-One, who charged that the criminalization of black culture on radio stations is a matter of “public safety.”
“We’re not gangstas, we’re not pimps, hos, thugs,” he said. “This is not who we are, but this is what we’re getting advertised as. Police officers listen to the radio … and when I walk down the street, they’re going to think that’s me.”
Other musicians complained of the difficulty of getting exposure on local radio stations, especially when consolidation has led to executives in far-away corporate offices – and often in cahoots with major labels – deciding local play lists.
Big Rap, owner of CWAL Records, said, “The 1996 act has nearly destroyed small record labels.” He mentioned a local R&B DJ who “wants $5,000 to play your song in the mix show. No independent record labels have that kind of money.”
More than 200 people spoke at the hearing, voicing their grievances about, and proposing changes to, the FCC policy.
Sylvia Rivera, general manager of Radio Arte, blasted the rampant stereotyping of the Latino population in the mainstream media. “Turn on the Spanish-language TV and you get telenovelas,” she said. “You get sexualized images of our women.” Meanwhile, the Spanish-language radio, she said, is laden with “sexual innuendos” and “homophobic rhetoric.”
“If you came here to find out if community issues are treated with sensitivity and intelligence,” she told the commissioners, “the answer is no.”
The latest FCC proposal, crafted by Chairman Martin, would make a bad situation worse. The provision aims to allow one company to run the major daily newspaper, eight radio stations and up to 18 television stations in the same market by the time the “digital transition” is completed in 2009.
Adelstein, however, has proposed the creation of a bipartisan, independent panel to investigate minority media ownership before the chairman’s measure is called to a vote. The idea, announced in Chicago, has already garnered support from some members of Congress, including Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.).
“People need to organize and give us the benefit of knowing what the public’s view of the public interest should be,” Adelstein says, “rather than letting it be determined by self-interested companies that seek to profit by using the public airwaves.”
Chairman Martin, who met with executives from the Chicago Tribune on his way to the hearing, doesn’t seem eager to put any obstacles in the way of big media.
According to Rudy Brioche, legislative adviser to Adelstein, “the word on the street” is that Martin will call the matter to a vote “before the end of the first quarter 2008 – due to the presidential primary season and the effective motivation efforts of the media democracy movement.”
Media reform activists hope that the Chicago hearing left a lasting impression on the two new commissioners, Deborah Tate and Robert McDowell, who are still “on the fence,” according to Yolanda Hippensteele, outreach director for Free Press. “There’s no mistaking what the public thinks about media consolidation,” she says. “They think it has gone too far at the expense of too many. The question is whether the FCC is listening.”
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