The FCC must act to promote minority-owned broadcasting
Black-owned radio long has been the lifeblood of Black communities — not only a vital source of our music, but also a reflection of our culture, values and beliefs. Current happenings and historical events were announced as families and friends gathered to listen, speculate, celebrate and commiserate. I vividly remember, as a child, learning of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. via our local Black radio station. Black radio provided the soundtrack for life’s milestones, a voice for our communities’ dreams and priorities, and a conscience for a people striving to create equal space in our nation.
But given recent trends in the broadcasting business that have lessened Black ownership of radio stations, I worry that future generations may never share in the wonderful legacy of Black radio. While in Congress, my colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and I urged Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to promote minority ownership of our broadcast airwaves. President Biden himself provided an important backdrop to the urgency of the FCC’s mission: On his first day in office, he issued an executive order directing federal agencies such as the FCC to “redress inequities in their policies and programs that serve as barriers to equal opportunity.”
The good news is that many in the civil rights community are working with Congress and the FCC to reverse the decline in Black-owned radio. The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC) recently proposed to the FCC seven racial justice initiatives that would help Black-owned radio stations raise capital, expand their advertising base, and compete with the large incumbents. One concrete, immediate measure is approving a new technology called radio geo-targeting — that is, the ability to identify a user’s location and gear content based on that. A geo-targeting proposal, currently pending FCC approval, would allow radio stations the option to provide geographic-specific traffic, weather, public interest information and advertising to their local communities.
This is not a particularly novel idea. Today’s digital technology allows our devices access to news, information and advertising customized to precise locations. The cable industry has done the same for years. And the FCC four years ago allowed TV broadcasters to be on par with cable and the internet’s ability to geo-target content. However, FCC rules do not yet allow radio stations to geo-target.
So, now is the time for the FCC to authorize radio stations to use the technical innovation deployed by other media platforms. This would empower Black-owned stations to innovate and provide listeners and businesses with a deeper, more engaged, local experience. As advocated for by the MMTC, along with 21 national public interest, civil rights and business advocacy organizations, geo-targeting is a technology solution that Black radio needs to engage its listeners, expand minority ownership and more effectively reach underserved communities.
Geo-targeted content over radio would provide more relevant emergency alert messaging, hyper-local traffic reports and more effective advertising. This last point is crucial to promoting minority ownership: Radio is wholly dependent on advertising and geo-targeting enables Black-owned stations to sell advertising to small businesses — often Black-owned, too — in smaller, more affordable geographic blocks. Geo-targeted ads can be more relevant, useful and effective for a radio station, its listeners and its advertisers. That’s why other media platforms embrace them.
Contrary to the publicly filed comments from mega-broadcasters that are not inclined to compete fairly with small stations, geo-targeted content does not equal “redlining.” Just the opposite is true. In the simplest terms, like local cable television operations, radio geo-targeting would reserve a small segment of airtime for local advertising. Geo-targeted content encourages more advertising for “mom and pop” business owners with limited dollars, who seek an opportunity to connect to a geographically specific audience.
Moreover, thanks to the MMTC and others, FCC policy long has required broadcasters, at license renewal time, to certify that their ads and sales contracts are nondiscriminatory. In short, this technology would serve Black-owned radio stations, their advertisers and their listeners.
There are many proposals put forward by the MMTC and others to promote Black radio. But a big step in the right direction for growing the number of minority-owned radio stations — and for providing a platform to minority-owned small businesses to be able to afford to advertise on radio — would be to approve the geo-targeting rule currently before the FCC.
William Lacy Clay Jr. served as the U.S. representative from Missouri’s 1st Congressional District from 2001 to 2021. He was a second-generation member of the Congressional Black Caucus.