Sunday, December 19, 2010

Treat Corporate America Like the Enemy & No Free Pass for Black Radio

On June 2, transnational corporations claiming to be American citizens are likely to win permission to complete their conquest and consolidation of U.S. mass media, both broadcast and print. Their servant is Colin Powell's son, Michael, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the most anti-public overseer of the public airwaves since passage of the Federal Communications Act of 1934.

Powell, intent on nullifying the public hearings process, has doubtless committed a host of felonies in smoothing the way for the final conglomerization of broadcasting. The beneficiaries of the political power that grows out of radio and television ownership have enforced a near universal silence on the issue. In addition to the media giants that already control the vast bulk of what is electronically seen and heard in the United States, the print opinion leaders of The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post have all urged final deregulation of broadcasting, so that they might sit at the feast table with the handful of broadcast and cable conglomerates. 

This conspiracy of silence is designed to ensure that we hear nothing but what rich white men in suits want to say - forever. 

It is impossible to exaggerate the consequences that flow from corporate monopolization of media. However, it can be argued that effective electronic media monopoly has already been achieved through the Telecommunications Act of 1996, legislation that the FCC describes as allowing "any communications business [to] compete in any market against any other," but which in practice allows the big fish to swallow up the less big while exterminating the small.

The Black radio experience

In terms of effective Black access, the airwaves have long been a wasteland. In a fundamental political sense, all corporations resist popular power and speak a common language of profit - including Black-owned media corporations, once they have gained sufficient foothold in the marketplace. The corporatization of the media message has proceeded without interruption since well before the FCC's Fairness Doctrine was finally discarded, in 1987. 

The Doctrine imposed responsibility on broadcast owners to encourage and facilitate the airing of all sides of controversial issues. In the late Sixties through the Seventies, FCC rules were interpreted as requiring stations licensed to serve Black audiences to demonstrate that their programming provided the public with practical avenues of access to the airwaves. As a result, Black-oriented radio stations got "Blacker," whether they were owned by Blacks or not. Television stations, which assumed responsibility for serving all segments of the community, felt compelled to create or carry syndicated programs tailored to African Americans. 

For a brief time, Black journalism and public affairs programming proliferated in markets large and small, empowering political movements in these localities. However, aspiring business voices within the Black community combined with the general corporate cacophony to shift the discussion away from public access to the airwaves. Instead, Black ownership became the political objective - a game that large corporations knew they could control. The Black community became spectators in the buying and selling sport, their actual access to the airwaves dependent on the program whims of owners. With a very few exceptions, local news staffs shrank or disappeared from Black radio. 

Although some Black entrepreneurial players became rich - very few, actually, considering the potential that existed at the turn of the Seventies - by the beginning of the Eighties grassroots Black politics was crippled. African American activism had been informed by mass organizational strategies. Black-oriented media - including radio outlets owned by whites anxious to demonstrate sensitivity to Black opinion and conform to the FCC's community access rules - were no longer forums for grassroots expression. A political vacuum imploded over much of urban America, filled crudely and to little organizational effect by Hip Hop music storytellers. It became possible to say that the Civil Rights Movement was dead - certainly, you couldn't hear it breathing.

Despite the self-congratulatory noises of the small Black media class, very little of substance was gained by shifting the focus from Black popular access in favor of limited Black ownership. Minorities have never owned more than 3 percent of U.S. media. Today, minorities own just 1.8 percent of broadcasting - and that includes white women! The "stand-alone" Black radio station, locally owned and responsive to local activists, is all but extinct, as are stand-alone stations in general. (Radio's Clear Channel chain, which grew from 40 stations to 1,200 outlets under deregulation, owns six stations in Minot, North Dakota, a city of only 37,000 people. Almost all of the programming is automated, canned at corporate headquarters.) 

In dollar terms, Black radio is stronger than ever, with by far the most loyal listener base in the demographic spectrum. But it is generally unresponsive to Black community action, having largely dismantled the news organizations that once empowered local activism.

Television and corporate print media feel they can ignore Black political demands. Managers point to Black faces on the screen and Black bylines in their news pages. However, actual coverage, the essential product, is governed by corporate imperatives.

No access without a demand

The Civil Rights and Black Power Movements were mass activities whose fortunes were closely tied to the behavior of mass media. The frenzy of Black newsroom hiring three decades ago occurred in response to Black activism. African Americans demanded that media provide coverage of Black struggles, or be considered "part of the problem." The FCC and corporate media temporarily accommodated these demands, allowing a brief expansion of the social space in which the Black political drama was acted out. That door is now virtually closed, and will remain so, no matter how the FCC rules in June, unless Black organizations retool their strategies to force a media response

It should be clear to everyone that the corporate media is an active enemy of popular power in the United States. It is also true that Black-owned or managed radio is not generally responsive to Black political concerns. (The exceptions are well-known, and do not need to be complimented for doing the right thing.) We must return to basics - and this applies to activists of all ethnicities. The demand must be for coverage of community concerns and events. Nothing else matters. That means Black activists must measure media by the coverage it affords their activities, rather than the station's roster of Black employees or the race of the owners or managers.

In a society such as ours, events do not exist unless media covers them. Demonstrations are organized primarily for the purpose of garnering news coverage. Success or failure is measured, first, by whether the media show up at all and, secondly, in how the story is framed. It is ridiculous to continue treating media as somehow removed from the structures of power. Activism is not defined by FCC rules. When media act as the enemy, treat them that way. If coverage is what is necessary, go to the source - with the intent to disrupt their activities and destroy their reputations. 

The publishers of are media veterans, and know from intimate experience that mass broadcasting and print are the weakest links in the chains of power. Their product is public credibility, a fragile quantity. Relatively small numbers of determined activists can snatch it from them. They are uniquely defenseless against demonstrations, inherently so. We have seen managers cower at the mere thought of being visited by angry activists - not because of possible threats to their FCC licenses (although this was once a consideration), but in fear of being exposed as just another business on the make.

Media treasure their fancied positions as arbiters of the public good. It is the reason they spend huge sums on promotions to convince the public that they are "on your side." This investment is wasted when it is dramatically proven that community accountability is a myth. Moreover, once it becomes clear that the community demands outlets that respond to popular concerns, and will retaliate against the reputation of stations and newspapers that ignore community demands, media relent every time. Reputation and good will make up the largest portion of their corporate value, a highly perishable commodity. 

Every serious protest campaign must consider media as a secondary or even primary target. Media managers must be confronted with a choice: either provide coverage of legitimate community demands, or become the object of protest. 

Revoke the free pass

Black media are often given a free pass, while providing little more than music as proof that they are on anyone's side but the owners. Yet Black media are central to any mass organizing effort, since that's where the people are. Just as white-owned newspapers cannot be allowed to ignore Black concerns by simply pointing to the presence of Black reporters who do not show up at demonstrations, or whose stories are given limited exposure, or who may be downright hostile, so Black-owned or managed radio stations cannot be left unaccountable. 

In today's environment, failure to confront media means political impotence. It does not take much to shake up businesses that pose as community resources. As a last resort, go after their advertisers, directly. "Boycotts" of broadcasters are not in themselves effective, since they cannot be enforced and are unlikely to have measurable results in the ratings. However, actual demonstrations to publicize boycotts do have effects. Valued retail advertisers can also be picketed for supporting the offending broadcasters, just as the South Africa divestment campaign targeted U.S. corporations and financial institutions that bolstered the white regime. The local car dealership does not relish the idea of paying for the privilege of becoming the target of community wrath aimed at the station with whom it advertises. 

FCC Chairman Michael Powell may complete the corporate consolidation of media, but in the end, sales and audiences are local. Go for the weakest link in the chain. Powell can't do a thing about that.

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