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Should the FCC count public radio station board members as owners?

The four major organizations that represent public broadcasting say the Federal Communications Commission shouldn’t count public radio and television station board members as the “owners” of the license in question.

“We must caution that this data does not, on a station-by-station basis or in the aggregate, provide a meaningful representation of the role minorities and women play in shaping the programming and services that public broadcasting stations offer,” they wrote on June 26. “Thus, the purpose and efficacy of such a data collection is questionable.”

The warning comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting Service, and the Association of Public Television Stations.

Some background here: Several months ago the FCC launched a new proceeding on how to boost the number of radio and TV stations owned by women and minorities. The present situation is pretty pathetic. A recent study by Free Press estimated that minorities own about 7.7 percent of full power commercial radio stations. Women own about 6 percent.

The Commission announced that it wants to explore ways to more accurately count who owns what, among them by possibly expanding the questions on Form 323-E, which non-commercial educational [NCE] radio and TV stations have to send to the Commission from time to time. At present the form just asks for basic stuff—the station’s address and telephone number—that sort of thing. But the FCC says it wants to get a lot more up close and personal.

“We tentatively conclude that obtaining gender, race, and ethnicity information [from non-commercial stations] would further our goal to design policies to advance diversity in the broadcast industry,” the agency’s notice suggested. “We believe that data from the entire universe of NCE stations are necessary to provide a comprehensive picture of broadcast ownership, including ownership by women and minorities in the broadcast industry.”

Keep in mind that when the FCC says it has “tentatively concluded” something, it means that the decision is a done deal unless somebody talks the agency out of it.

So public broadcasting is clearly trying to change the FCC’s mind here. Public broadcasting stations are fundamentally different from commercial stations in their ownership structure, the June 26 CPB et al comment argues. Nobody holds investment or equity interest in them. They’re usually the property of foundations, colleges, or school systems, and overseen by governing boards.

“While the governing boards of trustees of stations have responsibility for overall station affairs,” the filers write, “including setting appropriate policies to govern station goals and operations, they do not, and should not, involve themselves in day-to-day operations, including, significantly, the selection of programming to air on the station. This is crystal-clear particularly in the case of state or institutional licensees, where the governing boards are appointed by the state governors or legislatures.”

—or in some instances voters. The comment cites KSDS-FM in San Diego as an example. That license is governed by a five-member, city wide elected board with a student member, CPB notes, “but the day-to-day operation of the station, a full-time mainstream/traditional jazz radio station, is managed by the station staff.”

In the end, “aggregating data from commercial and noncommercial broadcasters would muddle, rather than clarify, the true picture of broadcast ownership,” the quartet of public broadcasting organizations told the FCC, “which is by definition a purely commercial construct.”

I’m with the CPB on the principle that public radio/TV station board members should have little if anything to do with programming at their respective station. But NCE board members do influence the overall direction of stations, especially in the hiring of managers and overseeing of strategic plans. It’s not as if they bear no resemblance at all to commercial license holders.

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