Geoffrey Starks 2020

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks says “something is off” regarding the current state of media ownership. Latinos own just 4.1% of FMs and 6.1% of commercial AMs, while African Americans own 2.1% of FMs and 3% of commercial AMs, far below their population numbers. Starks says it is why making America’s broadcasters “look more like the population” is one of his top media objectives. “We must do better in fulfilling the Commission’s obligation to promote ownership by women and people of color,” he told the Hispanic Radio Conference on Thursday.

Starks backed the revival of the minority tax certificate program as a way to grow minority ownership ranks. Under a bill pending in Congress, an established broadcaster would receive federal tax breaks if they sold a station to a newcomer of color. In its earlier incarnation between 1978 and 1995, minority ownership increased from a combined 40 radio and TV stations to 288 radio and 43 TV stations. “That is real, significant progress, and if that program had continued the minority ownership numbers today might not be so underwhelming,” said Starks.

But Starks also told the conference that the FCC needs to make some other changes on its own. That includes collecting more detailed information from stations about their employees, something that the FCC has not done since 2004 after concerns were raised that it was unconstitutional. But Starks said that is a “dereliction of duty” on behalf of the FCC, which is supposed to be collecting EEO data from broadcasters. “Until we can adequately quantify the problem, we cannot adequately address it,” he said.

Starks also told broadcasters he backs a proposal pending at the FCC that would allow stations to use, on a limited basis, geo-targeted content that originates from FM booster stations. The petition, filed by GeoBroadcast Solutions would allow stations to offer hyper-localized content, including alternative language news, weather, emergency alerts, and advertising periodically during the broadcast day. Starks called the idea “innovative” and said it was the sort of “creative solution” that the FCC needs more of. “It could provide a way for minority-owned stations to better serve their communities, and open up opportunities for small businesses looking to more cost-effectively advertise to a targeted audience and for FM stations owned by people of color to increase advertising revenue,” he said.

The GeoBroadcast proposal has the backing of several small groups, but four of the biggest – including Beasley Media Group, Cumulus Media, Entercom Communications, and iHeartMedia – have urged the FCC to go slow. They argue what’s branded as ZoneCasting remains largely unproven technology and worry a widespread deployment could create unintended negative consequences for the industry. They have said allowing such technology to be used as “premature” without more vetting, noting there has only been one real-word experimental test of the current generation of ZoneCasting technology on Alpha Media’s rock WIIL Milwaukee (95.1). They called that a “slim basis” for the FCC to proceed with a potential change to booster rules.