How 'zonecasting' could harm minority neighborhoods

How 'zonecasting' could harm minority neighborhoods
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The Federal Communications Commission is reviewing a proposal to permit zonecasting — the geo-targeting of advertisements — on FM radio stations. Simply put, this technology would allow radio stations to simultaneously target different ads to different parts of town. At first glance, zonecasting may seem harmless and even useful; however, the unintended consequences it would bring to consumers would cancel out all potential gains.

The corporate interests supporting zonecasting argue this technology would benefit minority populations in particular. In reality, though, it would increase the discriminatory practice of redlining, help corporate giants at the expense of underserved communities, and jeopardize the FCC and Biden administration’s commitment to racial equity in the communications sphere.

For those unfamiliar with redlining, it’s the term used when private or public actors limit or deny services to poor or minority communities. It occurred most frequently in the 1970s when banks and financial institutions marked up maps with red lines on and around neighborhoods that they deemed undeserving of their loans and insurance coverage.


Thanks to laws such as the Fair Housing Act (which prohibits discriminating by race or origin in real estate) and the Community Reinvestment Act (which mandates banks apply the same lending criteria to all communities), the federal government has sharply curbed this practice. That said, it is still very much alive and remains closely watched by the government.

There has been broad bipartisan opposition to fight redlining in the communications sector, particularly around advertising. Following many reported instances of ad campaigns that included exclusionary stipulations at the expense of heavily minority urban areas, the Obama FCC in 2007 implemented a Diversity Order that prohibited broadcasters from accepting campaigns with discriminatory conditions. Former FCC Chairman Ajit PaiAjit PaiTop Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles Two telemarketers fined record 5M for robocalls How 'zonecasting' could harm minority neighborhoods MORE later highlighted the continued concerns over redlining in a speech: He stated that policies to prevent “no urban, no Hispanic, no Asian dictates” from advertisers worked “for a time” but that the “repugnant” practice has arisen again and should propel the government into action.

While the potential for redlining does not appear to be the intent behind zonecasting, the technology would not only enable it, but it would also exacerbate the practice.

This concern was underscored in a recent filing to the FCC by a consortium of minority and women-owned broadcasters. In their filing, these broadcasters noted, “Consider the example of a radio market that has a distinct core of more affluent listeners located in one geographic area in the market. Advertisers could well reason that these more affluent listeners represent a more efficient use of adverting dollars and could rationally choose only to advertise to these listeners.”

Currently, when a business purchases an ad on radio in Washington, D.C., the ad covers all listeners within the signal’s service area, ensuring that everyone, not just the more affluent, has access to the same content to make purchasing decisions.


Zonecasting would enable advertisers to target only the D.C. neighborhoods they deem “desirable,” and not “waste” their ad spend in neighborhoods they don’t want.

The corporate interests supporting zonecasting claim that underserved communities will benefit from this technology because they would receive more geographically relevant ads. While this may be true in some cases, in the real world that we all live in today, it’s clear that allowing corporations to pick and choose which neighborhoods they advertise in will not bode well for many minority communities. We know this because, despite safeguards already in place, some companies continue to show little willingness to address redlining.

Facebook has been widely criticized for redlining on its platform. As the New York Times reported, Facebook has been sued by housing groups for restricting housing advertisements based on factors such as race and origin. Subsequently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development brought charges against Facebook for violating the Fair Housing Act in restricting these ads.

Unlike the big online platforms, local radio stations are licensed to serve their community — the entire community, not a select few.

Minority communities already face significant disparities in access to capital, digital connectivity, and employment. The last thing they need is for the FCC to greenlight the zonecasting rule changes, which would potentially worsen these inequities by effectively restricting the free flow of information to all.

Throughout her two decades of public service, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica RosenworcelJessica RosenworcelTop Democrat: FCC actions are a 'potential setback' to autonomous vehicles Biden needs to counter Russia and China to secure our digital future To build lasting digital equity, look to communities MORE has proven to be a strong champion of inclusivity, racial justice, and minority rights. I am confident that after reviewing the facts of this matter at hand, she will stand up for what’s right rather than what’s convenient for some in corporate America.

Reverend Dean Nelson is the president of the Douglass Leadership Institute (DLI), a national education and public policy 501(c)(3) organization committed to serving the black community and the nation by advocating for the ideas and principles pushed by social reformer Frederick Douglass. Nelson was appointed by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan to serve on the congressional Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission whose mission is to honor the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass.