New Study Finds Abysmally Few Minority and Women-Owned Radio Stations

Human Rights

In 1976, the U.S. Court of Appeals advised the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that it should begin to include race as a factor in deciding which applicants to approve licenses for broadcast media ownership. As a result of the landmark decision, which was of course fueled by the civil rights movement and public pressure, the FCC developed its groundbreaking Statement of Policy on Minority Ownership.

And during its relatively brief 20-year existence, the Minority Policy Statement (as it came to be known) actually worked. But then came the backlash.

Since the mid-1990s the small gains that were made have been consistently rolled back, and minority ownership has plummeted by at least 14% since 1997 according to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) in Washington, D.C. (The FCC did not even begin to process race and gender-related ownership data until 2003 and even then its numbers were consistently erroneous and incomplete.)

In short, we are "back at square one," says Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps.

Luckily, the Free Press, a Washington, DC media reform organization, has stepped up to the plate to do what the FCC will not.

In 2006 the group released "Out of the Picture," an unprecedented report on broadcast television ownership, which found that women of all races own just 5% of the 1,400 commercial broadcast television stations in America. People of color, who make up 33% of the national population (and will be more than 50% by 2050), own just 3.6%.

Now the Free Press is back with an equally scathing report on the abysmal state of radio ownership.

Its latest study, "Off the Dial (pdf)," released earlier this month, found that women and minorities own just 6 and 7.7% of all broadcast radio stations in the country respectively. This means that listeners in an average radio market have 16 white male-owned stations to choose from, but just one woman-owned and two minority owned alternatives.

"It's not about biology," warns Gloria Steinem, a founder of GreenStone Media, in reacting to the study's findings. "It's about programmers who share the experiences of their audiences. It's about ... culture, and the ethics of the whole industry."

Indeed, today's FCC places no importance whatsoever on minority or women-owned media.

After appointing (under pressure) a 29-member Advisory Committee on Diversity in 2003, volunteers worked for more than a year and a half to present 18 recommendations for promoting minority and female broadcast ownership. But in the ultimate slap in the face, the FCC did not even bother to mention the recommendations in its 2006 notice of proposed rulemaking, says David Honig, executive director of the MMTC, and one of the advisory panel members.

The FCC knows how to improve the situation. "There's no lack of suggestions," says Commissioner Copps. "It's a question of will and determination."

"Even advertisers are dissatisfied," says Steinem, noting that "women still buy 85% of goods at the point of purchase. And yet AM talk radio is so hostile and combative that it's chasing women away, and advertisers can't reach them."

Study after study has shown that minority owners report more local news, have more diverse hiring and management, and ultimately serve their communities better. The latest Free Press report confirms yet again what we already know: diversity in ownership is more likely to lead to diversity in hiring and programming.

By putting media in the hands of impersonal conglomerate owners, we no longer even have stations that are able to warn local residents about nearby emergencies, says Steinem. "Now there's just a closet with a spinning disk in it controlled by somebody thousands of miles away."

"This has to be at least the beginning of a turn upward," she adds. "We've reached the bottom."

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