With broom in hand, Dr. Martin Luther King used to bang on the ceiling of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Directly above SCLC’s Atlanta office was WERD, the country’s first black owned station. Upon hearing the knock from below, WERD’s DJ would lower a microphone outside the window and tell listeners to stay tuned for an important announcement. Standing one floor below by the window, Dr. King would grab the mic and deliver his message.
“That’s how closely they worked together, the black community and black radio,” Joseph Torres of Free Press said this week at a discussion on “Civil Rights on the Airwaves” at New America Foundation.
Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement benefitted from having access to the broader community via WERD’s airwaves, but this opportunity likely wouldn’t have been available if Jesse Blayton hadn’t become the first African American to purchase a radio station.
“Ownership is critically important because who owns [the] media outlet determines who gets to speak and who has a right to be heard,” said Torres, co-author of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. “We all know the harm caused when we cannot tell our own stories.”
Today, people of color own just 7 percent of the country’s radio stations and 3 percent of TV stations. Yet, the FCC is considering allowing further consolidation by lifting a rule that prevents newspapers from owning TV stations in the same market.
On the other end of the consolidation-vs.-democratization spectrum is what’s happening as a result of last year’s Local Community Radio Act, which freed up room for low-power FM stations. At no more than 100-watts, LPFMs have a limited reach, “but they make a giant contribution to local community programming,” said FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. “Thanks to the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, 2012 offers the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history. But for whom?” asks New America Foundation.
Like LPFM, the internet has been a democratizing force. However, in the years to come it may be much less so if Big Media is successful in doing away with the principal of Net Neutrality, which allows smaller sites like TheFightBack to load at the same speed as, say, msnbc.com or fox.com.
Historically, Civil Rights groups have played a leading role in pushing for a more decentralized and democratic media. But not today. Huge donations from Big Media have bought the silence of many of these groups.
This Dr. King holiday, it may be worth asking: With a consolidated media system and limited minority ownership, might we be missing out on the opportunity to hear from the next MLK?
An Advocate for Net Neutrality, Sept. 20, 2010