(By Deborah Parenti) Just when we thought 2020 couldn’t get worse, it did, with the horrific crime committed against George Floyd on Memorial Day.
In reflecting on that, it is a natural inclination to expand one’s thoughts to what has happened throughout the country since that day. Certainly, the ensuing events are worthy of discussion. But what occurred in those eight-plus minutes, now forever engrained in our collective memory, demands contemplation without distraction or extenuating focus.
The sheer barbaric nature of that act calls for all of us to take stock of who we are and what we can do from our window on the world to try to ensure that it never happens again.
We are not public officials.
We are not police officers.
We are not first responders or medical personnel.
We are radio broadcasters. We have platforms and opportunities that are unique to our profession as media. We can be influencers, educators, and a conduit for disseminating information and support to those in need. Broadcasters have the power of the mic. We have the power to lead, inspire, and provide pathways to success to future generations of broadcasters. We have the power to influence change.
For starters, that pathway should include viable opportunities for ownership.
The sad but not surprising fact is that there are so few African American-owned radio stations in the country. Many reasons can be cited, but none change the fact. Racial minorities, including African Americans, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Asians, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islanders, and mixed-race individuals collectively owned 202 commercial AM radio stations (5.9%) and 159 commercial FM radio stations (2.9%), according to a February 2020 FCC report on ownership as of October 2017. Among noncommercial stations, racial minorities owned 12 AMs (4.7%) and 91 FMs (2.6%).
To be perfectly clear, those percentages do not represent solely African American ownership. They include ALL minority ownership other than Hispanic. Out of over 11,000 stations, by the way. And these numbers were last compiled in 2017, almost three years ago; unfortunately, the latest figures available from the FCC. As Commissioner Geoffrey Starks notes, “To effectively address the lack of media ownership diversity, we cannot use stale data and must get better at assessing the extent of the problem in a timely manner.”
And that attention to assessment is more important than ever because, as the saying goes, “frequency sells.” There is an even greater urgency to this situation now, to be able to use these numbers as evidence of the need for more diversity in ownership, particularly African American ownership. To achieve that, however, will take both opportunity and access to capital. Any number of initiatives should and could be considered. They might include revival in some form of the tax certificate, tax relief for donation of a station as a non-profit training facility, lowering the barriers to entry that restrict access to capital and spectrum, and incubator programs, to name a few. H.R. 3957 — Expanding Broadcast Ownership Opportunities Act of 2019 — is currently sitting in front of the House full committee. It has the support of the NAB, NABOB, and MMTC. If you haven’t already, you should lend your voice to your congressional representatives as well.
While not everyone can be or wants to be an owner, there are some brilliant opportunities to diversify in ways that are also uniting and enhancing. These measures go beyond hiring and promoting, though both should be integral to any operation. Like a pair of shoes, you can fill your closet shelves with many styles and colors, but if you don’t take a pair out of the box and get comfortable with them, you never know what you are missing as you walk through life. Perhaps we have been trying too hard to be homogenous rather than explore and celebrate our unique characteristics as well as those that bind us. I am Italian-American and proud of it. I want to tell you about my culture, my family traditions, the things that make me “me.” That’s true of most people. They want to share their background and experiences. That includes staff. A great way to grow people is to grow their minds and expand their horizons and perspectives. We need diverse voices to provide different perspectives and to shape the content we air. We need to meld the melting pot we have already brought together and truly take advantage of those invaluable assets.
At the end of the day, of course, radio is only as effective as its connection with its consumers. While syndicated and national news programs are available and offer a variety of programming options, there remains a huge opportunity for local news that focuses on issues and interests important to African American communities. It is a void that exists in many markets, and at a time when news and information are so important. As we have seen from the protests, there are voices of color demanding to be heard.
We are at a critical juncture in history. I certainly don’t have the answers, but I do know we need to come together to heal America. We, as broadcasters, have a role to play in that. And finding solutions start with conversations.
Deborah Parenti is the Publisher of Radio Ink Magazine and can be reached at [email protected]