Capitol Dome

On Inauguration Day in January, President Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to assess whether their programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups. How that is playing out at the Federal Communications Commission is clearer now, thanks to a letter Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel sent to Capitol Hill after 25 lawmakers made a link between media ownership and the Biden initiative.

The group said ownership numbers that show 7% of commercial FMs and 12% of commercial AMs are owned by people of color demonstrate a need for the FCC to look for ways to reverse policies and programs “to break down barriers” to “just” media and telecommunication practices. “Our nation’s first radio and TV licenses were awarded by the Federal Radio Commission and then its successor, the FCC, during an era of Jim Crow segregation,” the group wrote, adding, “The previous administration's efforts to consolidate the media marketplace limited ownership opportunities for people of color and women.”

Rosenworcel said she sees the Biden administration effort as a way to identify the harms that federal policies have caused, and an opportunity to remedy them for the future. “This is a vitally important task. I believe it needs to inform our thinking at the Federal Communications Commission with everything we do,” she wrote in a response. Rosenworcel said the FCC has an across the board review underway of programs and policies that could keep underserved communities from accessing FCC programs, policies, or staff. “As part of this review, the agency also is considering whether new policies, regulations or guidance may be necessary, including with respect to its media policies,” she said.

Yet Rosenworcel also conceded that the effort has become “more challenging” after the Supreme Court earlier this year struck down challenges to media ownership updates, including abolishing newspaper-broadcast and radio-TV cross-ownership limits. “However, there are media policies at the FCC that for far too long have been underutilized that could help inform equitable employment policies,” she said. Rosenworcel pointed to the recent proposal to restart the data collection from stations about the racial and gender makeup of their staffs as one example of how that could play out. “By updating the agency’s strategic vision in this way, I’ve worked to ensure that advancing equity is core to all the agency’s management and policymaking processes,” she said.

Rosenworcel also told members of Congress that one way forward is for them to pass the bills that would revive the minority tax certificate program that gives tax breaks to broadcasters that sell stations to women or minorities.

Support For ZoneCasting From Congress

The FCC is also getting a nudge from Capitol Hill about moving forward with GeoBroadcast Solutions’ proposed ZoneCasting technology that would allow FMs to use a network of booster signals to create a geo-targeted radio product in a market.

Reps. G. K. Butterfield and Tony Cárdenas say the ability to geo-target content would give radio broadcasters a way to offer better service to their specific communities “We see this technology as particularly meaningful for minority broadcasters,” they wrote in a letter to Rosenworcel last month. “Minority-owned stations tend to be in diverse areas, where geo-targeted content, such as second-language content, could be particularly meaningful,” they said.

Rosenworcel in her response did not endorse the idea, but said it has the potential to promote localism in broadcasting. “This is especially critical,” she said, “for small station owners who often compete for listeners and advertising dollars against station groups with larger market share.”

Rosenworcel also acknowledged that the ZoneCasting proposal has faced opposition from some broadcasters including the National Association of Broadcasters and most state broadcast associations. “The record in this specific proceeding has revealed some concern about technical issues, including whether permitting booster stations to originate geo-targeted content would result in those booster stations causing interference to the primary station they are licensed to rebroadcast, potentially including emergency alerts,” she said. It is why FEMA Deputy Assistant Administrator Antwane Johnson has raised concerns about the system.

To better understand how geo-targeted radio could play out technically, the FCC has granted two experimental licenses. Universal Media Access ethnic “Bolly 92.3” KSJO San Jose won approval in February to put ZoneCasting to the test. It was followed by Roberts Radio Broadcasting’s R&B WRBJ-FM Jackson, MS (97.7).

Rosenworcel told the lawmakers that she does not expect the results of those two tests to be submitted until later this year or early 2022.