In today’s 24-hour news cycle, Americans can feel overwhelmed by the amount of information at their disposal, and filtering through seemingly unlimited content can be more burdensome than informative. For more than a century, local broadcasters have played an important role in delivering trustworthy, important and oftentimes emergency news that is tailored to the areas they serve. To ensure our local broadcasters can prosper in today’s dynamic media environment, we must create proactive policies that will incentivize future generations from all backgrounds to join the industry and continue to provide local and relevant information to the communities they serve.
As a former radio station owner in rural Oregon, I know well that our local broadcasters are often Americans’ primary source of local news, particularly in rural areas. They are especially vital during public health and safety crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing wildfires in the West. I also understand the importance of ensuring broadcast owners and their content reflect the communities they serve, and I commend the efforts of broadcasters to ensure diversity of their ownership, the viewpoints they present, and their employees.
The challenges faced by the broadcast media industry have grown as today’s media marketplace continues to evolve. While cable news and social media favor catchy headlines and conflict to drive clicks and ratings, local radio and television broadcasters often find captivating, authentic local stories that might not be “newsy” to the national market, but those stories matter deeply to the communities they serve. Americans trust local news more than national news, and with good reason. According to a study last year by the Knight Foundation and Gallup, 6 in 10 Americans believe local news organizations are succeeding in informing communities, and local journalists are seen as more caring, trustworthy, and neutral or unbiased. It also doesn’t help that social media giants appear to act more as biased publishers rather than neutral public town squares. Local broadcast media matters now more than ever before.
While the obstacles faced by today’s local broadcasters have changed since my time in the business, government rules for the industry have not. In fact, ownership rules for broadcasters have stayed the same for more than two decades, putting local broadcasters at a disadvantage and preventing the growth of the industry at large. In an industry already struggling to compete with unregulated, digital competitors, opportunity lays further away for minorities who must overcome additional barriers including difficulty accessing capital or managing their first broadcast property. To ensure every American has an opportunity to be served content relevant for all identities, Congress must act to bring our media ownership laws into the 21st century, create policies to incentivize new entrants into the marketplace, and help lift voices of underrepresented individuals by promoting diversity where it matters most: ownership.
That is why, earlier this year, I introduced the Broadcast Diversity in Leadership Act. This bill aims to break down well-understood barriers and support new and diverse voices to join the local broadcast industry by creating a broadcast incubator program. Through the program, an established broadcaster and an aspiring broadcaster could form an incubation relationship, which would provide mentorship and access to capital, as well as establishing mutual goals to ensure success. I am proud to have worked with, and earned the support of, stakeholders that have been advocating for such a program for nearly three decades: the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters; the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council; and the National Association of Broadcasters. While there is certainly more work to be done, this program would be an important step in the right direction to promote a diverse array of voices in the broadcast media industry. This is an opportunity that should not be missed, and we cannot allow partisan politics and philosophical purity to stand in the way of real, commonsense progress that would enable more minorities to own broadcast stations that provide Americans access to the fair, relevant and diverse content they deserve.
Now more than ever we must work together to create equal opportunity for Americans of all backgrounds. We can start by working together with all stakeholders on appropriate measures to safeguard the integrity of an incubator program intended to break down these barriers and level the playing field. Congress should stop talking and start acting by sending this bill to the president’s desk this year.
Walden represents Oregon’s 2nd District and is ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.