By Andrew C. Barrett, former FCC Commissioner
Now past his first 100 days, President Biden should focus his sights on naming a permanent chair for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Since her ascension in January, Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has done a commendable job in this capacity. With presumptive latitude by the White House to keep the balls in motion she has made some important moves during her own 100 days, from advancing a proposal to update Emergency Alert System rules, greenlighting an upcoming radio auction, and adopting new disclosure rules for radio stations.
Someone with authority needs to address the continued inequities for minorities in broadcast radio that I have attempted to remedy since my days as a Commissioner in the 1990s.
During my tenure, the economic plight of Black businesses and the challenges relative to radio advertising were understood and debated but never remedied. I had the opportunity to meet with numerous members of the broadcast industry, and, in particular, licensees of radio stations as well as other radio industry representatives. There was a consensus that radio was and would be having a hard time competing with a multitude of competitive voices. In the interim decades there has been some attempt to address this need but so much more needs to be done. But with today’s racial discourse I hope significant progress can be made to improve the disparities that exist among the have and have-nots controlling the radio frequencies.
Specifically, the ability to hyper-localize content and advertising would truly enhance the localism bedrock of radio broadcasting, yet the industry is restrained from doing so at a time when all their competitors – television, cable, mobile, Internet, newspapers, direct mail – have the ability to deliver content that is tailored to a specific area and is hyper-localized to maximize its interest to the audience and its impact.
The solution is through new geo-targeting technologies that have already gone through a rigorous FCC commenting period and is now pending FCC approval. Essentially, the FCC would permit (but not require) broadcast stations to use their antennas and sophisticated algorithms to transmit different content for a few minutes of every hour – just like local cable companies have done for decades.
Geo-targeting for radio has been supported by The Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council, and the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. It’s an advancement for the industry that benefits small business advertisers and stations large and small by allowing them to provide localized news, weather, traffic, and alert listeners to regionalized emergencies, COVID outbreaks, or even the results of the local high school football game.
A significant number of small businesses particularly in the African American, Hispanic, and Native American business communities have been historically unable to afford radio advertising. The modification of the rules to allow for the geo-targeting of advertising would allow these businesses to take advantage of radio advertising. This would be a win-win for broadcasters and small business advertisers alike. Broadcasters would be able to attract more advertisers and generate more revenue for the same inventory while small minority businesses would be able to use the power of radio to attract customers during this critical post-pandemic time.
Yet inexplicably, some large radio groups want to impede competition by not allowing minority stations to localize their broadcasts, and want to frustrate the ability of these broadcasters to offer affordable advertising costs for small business owners who want to reach their neighborhood but can’t afford to buy the entire market.
The FCC should not allow these large radio groups to stifle innovation and keep the radio industry locked into 20th Century technology. It’s a missed opportunity and a bad mistake, given the history of the industry and the endless loop of lip service for change that never happens.
I hope the FCC follows the path of this administration and allows for this change that will benefit minority advertising businesses and broadcasters and do the whole broadcast radio industry good at a time the radio industry could use an injection of sorely needed innovation.
Andrew C. Barrett, raised in Chicago’s Hyde Park, was Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from 1989-1996. Prior to that, he spent nine years as commissioner with the Illinois Commerce Commission, the state regulatory agency where he became an expert on the telephone industry. Through the course of his distinguished career Commissioner Barrett was associate director from at the National Conference of Christians and Jews, and the executive director of the Chicago Branch of the NAACP. He was also director of operations at the Illinois Law Enforcement Commission in Chicago. Commissioner Barrett received a B.A. from Roosevelt University, an M.A. from Loyola University, and J.D. from DePaul University.