To find Answers, the FCC should rethink the Question


The recently initiated FCC Diversity Advisory Committee is charged with finding solutions to the perceived lack of women and minorities in broadcast ownership. 

I believe this Committee will end up asking the wrong questions and provide answers that don’t provide a real solution to this long-standing issue.  In his recent remarks to the Committee, Chairman Copps spoke of the shameful state of affairs when it comes to female and minority ownership of broadcast facilities.  The world dismal made an appearance, too.  

I’m not inclined to disagree with the acting Chairman, but a less constrained FCC addressed the same issue over 20 years ago.  Communications policy was brought to bear, and today we find ourselves seeing little change.

I question if communication policy can begin to address the shortcomings this committee will inevitably discover.

During the late 1980’s the FCC introduced a set of rules called Docket 80-90 that ultimately ended up doubling the number of FM stations in the country.  During the early days of allocating these stations the FCC awarded them to applicants based on a series of enhancements:

1) Female or minority applicant
2) No current ownership of a license
3) Prior broadcast experience
4) Licensee of an AM daytime station

It may be hard to imagine today, but these FM stations could be awarded on the basis of gender and race.  Indeed, as a white male, I was once asked by an Administrative Law Judge in a comparative hearing, “Why are you even here?”

Here is the real question this Diversity Committee should answer: given the policies of Docket 80-90, why aren’t half the FM stations owned by women or minorities today?  If a straight-up preference was once used, what happened?
I don’t know the answer, but I think it was lack of access to money for building out the stations and the lure of gains to be realized from selling these construction permits.

Neither of which can be addressed by communications policy.

My fear is that this Diversity Committee will use the information on the newly revised ownership reports as the reason to propose new rules and regulations which, again will, again, not solve the problem. 

I would also argue that to ignore the spheres of influence that women and minorities have in stations is to ignore an important aspect of diversity in the real world.  Ask any news director to rank the amount of contact with the GM versus the Owner and you will find the influence in a local market lies as much in operations as ownership.

With Docket 80-90, the FCC brought communications policy forward as a solution to the same problem we have today.  We can look around us and discover this did not solve these issues.  It is my hope this new Diversity Committee will study the methods used in Docket 80-90 and find new solutions beyond another NPRM.

— Ben Downs, VP/General Manager of a radio group in College Station, Texas