FCC Localism Rules: A “Tax on Blackness”?

by on May 30, 2008 · 10 comments


“[T]here are two policy goals on which we need to make real progress,” the FCC’s Michael Copps told Congress last year, “minority and female ownership is one, localism is the other.”   Indeed, the two goals have long been sandwiched together like ham and cheese by media reformers on the left.  

 But it turns out the two may not mix so well after all.   According to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council and the Independent Spanish Broadcasters Association,  many of the FCC’s proposals to advance localism will actually harm minority broadcasters.  Because of their “relatively small size and limited access to capital,” David Honig and Jocelyn James of MMTC say in two recent filings at the FCC, the proposals would have a “negative impact on minority broadcasters.”

 Among the proposed new requirements cited by MMTC and ISBA:  mandating permanent advisory boards, requiring a physical presence in broadcast facilities, prohibiting voice-tracking and adopting localism programming guidelines.

 The two groups took particular aim at what is known as the “main studio rule.”   Repealed in the 1980s and now being considered for resurrection, the rule required broadcasters to maintain a “main” studio in their community of license.  The problem, MMTC and ISBA point out, is that quite a few minority-owned stations – being late entrants into the broadcast industry (in part, it is argued, because of past discrimination by the FCC itself) – don’t have a central community of license.   Instead of having a powerful signal licensed from a single, central location, a disproportionate number of minority-owned broadcasters use clusters of small signals, each licensed to a separate, suburban community.  Thus, rather than maintaining a single “main” studio, the rule would require them to maintain multiple – and costly – studios.

 Because of this discriminatory effect, MMTC and ISBA say  — rather bluntly — the rule would operate as a “tax on Blackness and Brown-ness.”



 It should be noted that the ill-effects MMTC and ISBA cite are not limited to minority broadcasters,   The additional costs would be a burden to any smaller broadcaster.  That, however, is hardly a mitigating factor.

 Their analysis should give pause to anyone who supports regulation of media, whether for “localism” or some other nice-sounding purpose.  The real media world is not as simple as the big-corporation-versus-the-rest-of-us-rhetoric too often suggests.  And the cost of regulation may be borne in ways – and by those – it was least intended to harm. 



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