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Transcript:

November 2, 2007

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.

Once upon a time the Federal Communications Commission — the FCC — was a sleepy bureaucracy on a quiet street in Washington. The FCC is the government body that sets the rules for media. And for a decade now, it's become a citadel of power, swarming with media tycoons, high priced lawyers and well placed lobbyists, finagling to make sure the rules and regulations are shaped and bent to allow big media to get even bigger.

A handful of mega-media corporations have gained unprecedented control over radio ... television ... publishing and the Internet. They determine what music you hear, what stories get covered, whose opinions get expressed.

Until five years ago, people like you — the public — didn't matter very much at the FCC. Then, when the FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced that the commission was about to change the rule and allow a few media giants to own even more television and radio stations in one town, you said enough's enough. And somewhere between two or three million of you spoke up and deluged the FCC and Congress with phone calls, emails, letters, and postcards.

Now, a new chairman of the FCC Kevin Martin is pushing all over again to reward the Rupert Murdochs, the Time Warners, the Viacoms, General Electrics, and other conglomerates with what they want. And he wants it done by Christmas. What's at stake is the subject of our report, produced by Peter Meryash and reported by Rick Karr.

RICK KARR: Melody Spann-Cooper is one in a million. Literally: There are just over a million African-Americans in Chicago, her home town.

MELODY SPANN-COOPER: And I really want people to come out because…

RICK KARR: But she runs the city's only black-owned radio station.

RADIO: The talk of Chicago 1690 WVON.

RICK KARR: WVON airs talk radio that's nothing like what you'll hear from Rush Limbaugh.

RADIO: We're talking about the justice system in America and how that justice system applies the law to black folks.

RICK KARR: Spann-Cooper says, the fact that she's African-American makes a difference on the air.

MELODY SPANN-COOPER: I'm not trying to entertain first. I'm trying to educate first. So that makes it a little different for me. I want people to-- everyday, you have to learn something from listening to this radio station. Something that's going to make a difference in your life. I want black folks to have intelligent conversations when they go to their dinner parties. And they'll be able to say something they learned on VON.

RICK KARR: Things that they can't learn from other media outlets.

CLIFF KELLEY: Unfortunately it is the only African-American owned station in the city of Chicago, and as a result, I think we have a definite responsibility because we cover things that you won't hear on other stations.

CLIFF KELLEY ON AIR: Good afternoon, good afternoon, I am Cliff Kelley.

RICK KARR: Cliff Kelley is a former Chicago Alderman who hosts WVON's afternoon show.

CLIFF KELLEY: There are other stations that are directed toward the quote unquote urban community, but it's mostly music. We have very little music; we try to get out information.

RADIO: And here are some of the stories we are working on.

RICK KARR: Information that includes the kind of in-depth local news that most commercial broadcasters don't do anymore.

RADIO: Cook County board president Tod Schroder will publicly lay out his 2008 budget today.

RICK KARR: And topics that are particularly important to Chicago's African-Americans.

CLIFF KELLEY ON AIR: Studies have shown that when African American women follow the same preventative measures as white women their death rates from breast cancer are very similar. However, African American women are more likely than white women to be diagnosed at later stages in the disease and are more likely to die from it.

RADIO HOST: We have talked about how many lawsuits the city has settled with African Americans who have been violated and abused by the Chicago police department.

SANTITA JACKSON ON AIR:No one really has a lock on the black vote.

RICK KARR: Santita Jackson, the host of WVON's mid-morning show says, white America needs to pay attention to what the station's saying.

SANTITA JACKSON: My great grandmother put it this way, when white America gets a cold, African Americans already have pneumonia. And so, we really are the bell weather. For example, the Iraq War-- African Americans overwhelmingly felt this was a horrible idea. That it was just a really bad move. Not for lack of or for want of patriotism, but, really, because of patriotism. We said, "We're a better nation than this." And WVON put that message out there. Now, the rest of America has simply caught up.

RICK KARR: The rest of America's been catching up to WVON for more than forty years. When the station went on the air in 1963 ... the call letters stood for "The Voice Of The Negro". Even though its signal was weak, it soared in the ratings, popularized Blues and R&B music, and gave voice to the Civil Rights movement. Afternoon host Cliff Kelly says, the station still has the same ideals.

CLIFF KELLEY: There are so many things that need to be addressed and hopefully people will not only hear about it but they will take some action.

RICK KARR: Consider how WVON persuaded its listeners to take some action regarding the conflict in Jena, Louisiana: That's where, last year, some white high school students hung nooses from a tree — symbols that some people in the community saw as an effort to intimidate black students. The white students were suspended from school. As racial conflict increased, black students assaulted a white student and found themselves charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. In the meantime, Jena suffered from arson, beatings, and an escalating climate of racial tension.

The story first got a lot of attention from Louisiana's media, and from bloggers. Then Santita Jackson and other hosts on Black owned radio stations nationwide started talking about it.

SANTITA JACKSON: Everybody, once they heard the story that was the key. People needed to know the story. And once they knew it, the story really just took on a life of its own.

RICK KARR: What did the callers say that first day that you were telling Chicago about this story? What was their reaction to it?

SANTITA JACKSON: Tell me more. I've not heard anything about this.

RADIO: This trial has strong racial undertones.

RICK KARR: While most of the national "mainstream" media wasn't paying much attention, WVON and other black owned stations helped to keep the story alive, and used it as a rallying call for African-Americans.

PROTESTOR ON RADIO: Once we get off the buses every one will march from there to the court house…

RICK KARR: The station even told listeners how they could get down to Jena to join thousands of other protesters on a march through the town.

PROTESTORS ON RADIO: No justice, No peace!

MELODY SPANN-COOPER: To see young people come out in droves, buses, walking, it was an incredible day for us. And we don't need the white media to validate that. We've got to validate that. We have got to be able to validate and believe that what we bring to our listening audiences, everyday across this country, is real. Because we said it was real. Not because FOX said it was real or Clear Channel said it was real. Because we said it was real.

RICK KARR: Why do you think it is, though, that our colleagues in the, quote unquote, "mainstream media" ignored this story for so long? I mean, why was it down to VON to pick it up?

MELODY SPANN COOPER: It's not their story. It's not what they're passionate about.

RICK KARR: African-Americans aren't too passionate about the mainstream media, either, according to WVON program director Coz Carson.

COZ CARSON: There's a great deal of mistrust for mainstream media when it comes to African-American issues. So when we approach people, when we ask them to come and speak to us, they feel like they're speaking with family, they're speaking with people who understand their plight.

RICK KARR: Chicago's TV newscasts offer evidence of that disconnect on the air every night: According to a recent Northwestern University study, reporters interview three whites for every minority. And the imbalance is even worse in political stories, where whites outnumber minorities nine to one.

SANTITA JACKSON: You have media that does not look like woman. It does not look like African Americans and Asians and Latinos - really, what America and the world looks like. And so those views are very, very narrow. And as a consequence, you miss not just the Jena story. But, so many Jenas.

RICK KARR: African-Americans and Hispanics make up just over a quarter of the population in the United States — that's about eighty-five million people. Yet out of more than 10,000 radio stations nationwide, they own only 635 - or just about six percent. And African-Americans and Latinos own only 33 of the nation's 1350 TV stations. Hundreds of people showed up to vent their anger about the way that minorities have been shut out of the media. When the Federal Communications Commission came to Chicago for a public hearing in September.

FCC EVENT COORDINATOR: First line which is going to be this line. Just stand up and come around, sign up and give them your name.

RICK KARR: The public showed up hours beforehand for a chance to speak to the five commissioners who set the rules for broadcasting. They heard that the mainstream media not only under-represent minorities --but that even when they do talk about African Americans and Latinos, they get the story wrong.

WOMAN ON PANEL: If the FCC is here wanting to know if Chicago's residents are being well served? The answer is no. If local talent is being covered? The answer is no. If community issues are being covered sensitively? The answer is no. If minority groups are getting the coverage and the input that they need? The answer is no, the answer is no.

DOROTHY LEVELL: If you look at the major broadcast outlets in Chicago, there is not one single political talk show hosted by an African America.

ANNE BLAND: We are represented as less intelligent than we are, less caring than we are, less ambitious than we are, and less moral than we are. Please make the concept of fair and balanced more than just a slick advertising cliché

PUBLIC COMMENT: As I look at the composition of even this panel it indicates that you do not reflect the diversity that exists within America.

KRS-1 (LAWRENCE PARKER): Our culture is being criminalized by the radio stations.

RICK KARR: Lawrence Parker, better known as KRS-One, is a politically active rapper who told the Commission that he can't get his message across on the radio.

LAWRENCE PARKER: We're not gangsters; we're not pimps, 'hos, thugs. This is not who we are. But this is what we're being advertised as, and I think it's a public safety issue, because police officers listen to the radio as well, and if they're going to keep hearing ... I'm a criminal, I'm a pimp I'm a this... when I walk down the street, they're going to think that's me. It's a public safety issue, and I beg the FCC to help us. Thank you.

RICK KARR: The FCC knows that it has a minority problem. A Duke University study posted on the Commission's own Web site concludes that "minorities and females are clearly underrepresented" in the media. Another study found that, in the Chicago area, minorities own even less of the media than they do nationally: just one TV channel and four radio stations out of nearly a hundred.

COMMISSIONER ADELSTEIN: It's unbelievable how the diversity that is the strength of this community is not reflected on the airwaves. And that's the way it is all across the country.

RICK KARR: Jonathan Adelstein is a member of the FCC.

COMMISSIONER ADELSTEIN: And it's been an historic problem for the FCC. It began in the early days with all kinds of discrimination against minorities that wanted to buy their own outlets or get them from the government. And now, it's really almost institutionalized where it's so difficult because of the cost of these outlets, for minorities to have their own voices heard on the airwaves.

RICK KARR: In 2003 the FCC eliminated the only rule on the books intended to help minorities buy more radio and T-V stations. A Federal Appellate Court chastised the Commission for that decision, calling it "inconsistent with the Commission's obligation to make the broadcast spectrum available to all people 'without discrimination on the basis of race'." Yet FCC member Jonathan Adelstein says the Commission continues to ignore the problem.

COMMISSIONER ADELSTEIN: It's been 15 years now we've had various proposals on the table that we haven't done anything with. We have 44 different recommendations that have been made by our own diversity committees, by expert outside organizations that we have done nothing with. They are sitting on the shelf at the FCC, just gathering dust.

COMMISSIONER ADELSTEIN: I am calling on all my colleagues and our chairman to join me in creating a bipartisan, independent panel to...

RICK KARR: At the Chicago hearing, Adelstein called for a task force to plow through the backlog and make recommendations. But that's about all he can do to help minorities because he's in the minority on the FCC — one of two Democrats on the five-member panel. Republican Chairman Kevin Martin sets the Commission's agenda and he was noncommittal about Adelstein's task-force idea.

FCC CHAIRMAN MARTIN: I'll try to see if I can understand a better, what he's proposing. But I think that what we've been doing is actually trying to, in a bipartisan way, go out and gather information and try to work together in a collegial fashion and try to determine what the rules should be, and whether any changes are warranted or not.

FCC CHAIRMAN MARTIN (SPEAKING AT MEETING): The decisions we are going to make about media ownership rules will be as difficult as they are critical.

RICK KARR: But Martin is pushing for a change that critics say would make it even harder for Black and Hispanic media: He wants to let big media firms get even bigger, and he wants to do it soon — by mid December.

If Martin succeeds in changing the rule, it will set off another wave of industry consolidation. The latest since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That law got ride of a bunch of longstanding limits on how many radio and Television stations a single company could own. As soon as the law passed, conglomerates went on a buying binge. One firm, Clear Channel, ended up owning more than a thousand radio stations, and dominating the dial in some cities. Merger mania drove the cost of stations through the roof. That made it harder for minorities to become broadcasters.

MELODY SPANN-COOPER: You are in a city where a radio station — an FM station will cost you two hundred million dollars — I don't know one of us that can go to the bank and get two hundred million dollars.

RICK KARR: But conglomerates can raise that kind of money. And that's the heart of this story: Who owns the media? Six huge media firms control the major broadcast networks, more than a hundred TV stations, dozens of cable channels, major newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses, film studios and some of the Internet's most popular Web sites. In radio, says WVON's Melody Spann-Cooper, consolidation has changed everything.

MELODY SPANN-COOPER: Radio has moved from being in the business of empowering and educating people to Wall Street, to making money. And that's not the big corporate conglomerates, you know, that's not their fault. They were allowed to do this. This is the fault of government who did not put the proper checks and balances so that this could not happen.

COMMISSIONER MICHAEL COPPS: We can't make that same mistake again.

RICK KARR: The FCC's other Democrat, Michael Copps, has been fighting to restore some of those checks and balances. For example, he wants the Commission to require broadcasters to prove that they're serving their communities and take away their licenses if they can't.

COMMISSIONER MICHAEL COPPS: It used to be that every three years we required a station owner to come in and demonstrate that they were serving the public interest. And we had a little list of 12 or 14 guidelines. We'd look at it and see what the performance of the station was. And say, "Well, that sounds like they're making a good faith effort. Fine, lets give them their license back." Every three years. Now fast forward. Every eight years we say, "Send in a postcard and we'll send your license back by return mail." All of the old guidelines are gone. All of the old public interest expectations are gone.

RICK KARR: Copps doesn't have the power to bring that kind of accountability back to broadcasting because he and Adelstein are in the minority on the FCC. But on Capitol Hill there's growing anger that Big Media . has gotten too big. During an October hearing North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan blasted FCC Chairman Martin's plan to put the conglomerates' wish list on the fast track:

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): I was flabbergasted the other day to learn that there is now something under way that will end in December and will come out with all of these new media rules. This is unbelievably important.

RICK KARR: Dorgan said the FCC chairman's moving at a "full gallop" and that won't give enough time for experts and the public to weigh in.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): If in fact the chairman indicated that he intends to do media ownership by December of this year, there is going to be a firestorm of protest and I am going to be carrying the wood.

RICK KARR: One of the Senate's top Republican leaders agrees: Mississippi's Trent Lott has joined Dorgan's battle with the FCC.

SENATOR TRENT LOTT (R-MS): We feel like there is a rush to judgment here. We don't think they've had enough input before beginning to move to make this decision. I personally think that more media concentration and further deterioration of localism is the wrong way to go.

RICK KARR: Lott and Dorgan have stood side-by-side on this issue before: The last time a Republican-led FCC tried to allow Big Media firms to get even bigger, in 2003, the lawmakers persuaded a majority of their Senate colleagues to vote to reverse that decision.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): When the Federal Communications Commission, on the last occasion, issued their rule, I said that it was the most complete cave-in to big corporate interest in the shortest amount of time I had ever seen.

RICK KARR: And the FCC's doing it again, Dorgan said, caving in to pressure from Big Media firms.

SENATOR BYRON DORGAN (D-ND): There's a push at the FCC by some, not all, to satisfy the interests of very big business here. And--I mean, I believe that we only have about six big companies in this country that affect largely what most Americans see, hear and read every single day. And I think the bottom line here is, what will best serve this country's interests, not what will best serve the interests of big companies that own a lot of radio, television stations or newspapers.

RICK KARR: Dorgan says the FCC needs to push broadcasters to serve their communities' interests. And, he says, the Commission should do more to help women, African-Americans, and Latinos buy radio and TV stations. But until Washington does something to fix the problem. Melody Spann-Cooper of WVON says minorities need to find their own solutions.

MELODY SPANN-COOPER: As African Americans, we have got to find a creative way to make some lemonade out of lemons. And if you're stuck with an old model of doing business, you won't survive. Understand that my growth — I've got to survive. And it is contingent on me finding some creative ways to do some strategic alliances to grow my business.

RICK KARR: To do that, she struck a complicated deal to lease a station with a better signal from the conglomerate that reformers accuse of ruining local radio — Clear Channel. That worries some African-Americans in Chicago. They fear that they'll lose their only outlet on the radio dial if Spann-Cooper can't afford to pay up and buy the station from Clear Channel when the lease ends. But Melody-Spann Cooper says the deal's worth the risk.

MELODY SPANN-COOPER: James Brown said, "I don't want nobody to give me nothin'. Open the door, I'll get it myself." That's where I am. And we've got to turn-- we've got to-- we've got to find some beauty in that which we have been successful with thus far. African Americans have made tremendous strides since the civil rights movement. We have to embrace that. VON is a terrific platform. We need more VONs.

WVON: Join the conversation now. The talk of Chicago - 1690- WVON.

BILL MOYERS: Good to have you here.

RICK KARR: Thanks, it's good to be here.

BILL MOYERS: Evidence is clear that media concentration leads to less local news and less local community service. So why is Chairman Martin rushing to closure on this before Christmas?

RICK KARR: Well, he's made it clear from the day that he became chairman of the FCC that this is something that he wanted to do, this cross-ownership, allowing newspapers, radio, and television to combine. The other thing is he has political cover from the federal courts. Back in 2003, the court said this was the one thing that the FCC could do. Didn't have to do but could do. The other thing, though, is there's a political concern here. He wants to get this done before the primary season really heats up next year. Because he knows that there are Republicans out there who don't like media consolidation either.

BILL MOYERS: Oh, yeah. There have been a lot of conservative groups that have joined in this protest.

RICK KARR: Exactly. Well, the Republicans don't want that part of their base to get excited again, get angry about consolidation.

BILL MOYERS: I would not want to run for Congress or president by -- on a platform of getting Rupert Murdoch or Time Warner or Viacom more local control over my community.

RICK KARR: Which is exactly the thing about this. There's no constituency out there saying we want more consolidation. It's essentially just the big media companies. There are no citizens groups out there saying we want more of this.

BILL MOYERS: I even saw a study this week that showed 70 percent of the respondents said that media conglomeration is a problem.

RICK KARR: Yeah, exactly. People understand it intuitively. They get it-- you know, Jonathan Adelstein of the FCC said to me when we were in Chicago, he said, "People know. They know that it's changed." They used to bump into the people who ran their local station at the grocery store, getting their car washed, whatever. Now it's some far off corporate chiefdom. So they understand.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, it isn't hard to understand why the big media companies, the news divisions and the network and so forth don't cover this so that people don't know about it because they have so much to gain from just letting it happen in the middle of the night, right?

RICK KARR: Well, and a lot of people also, you know, in the industry say this is a boring story. It's not interesting. Who cares? It's in the background. But, you know, what we're trying to do is, of course, show how it affects people's lives.

BILL MOYERS: So how do people, whatever your opinion on this issue, how do people make themselves heard?

RICK KARR: Well, get in touch with the commissioners at the FCC. You know, the FCC's Web site allows you to file public comments there. Send letters, e-mails, faxes, whatever. Also get in touch with your members of Congress. When we were down in Washington covering that press conference with Byron Dorgon and Trent Lott, it was clear that they were interested in hearing from constituents.

BILL MOYERS: But there's a window, isn't there? I mean, there--public-

RICK KARR: There is

BILL MOYERS: --this public comment period runs until when?

RICK KARR: Exactly. Well, right now Chairman Martin is saying that he wants to close this up by the middle of December, by December 18th. Now, that may not happen. He may be pushed into a position where he needs to take a little bit more time. But it certainly is clear that people need to get in touch with him soon, certainly by the end of November.

BILL MOYERS: Thanks, Rick Karr. You and Peter Meryash did a good job for us.

RICK KARR: Thanks very much, Bill.



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