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FCC moves to fast track Native American radio

Federally recognized Native American Tribes and Alaska Native Villages who apply for AM or FM radio stations will get “Tribal Priority” status, thanks to an FCC decision released today. Tribal Priority will give precedence to their applications or to companies controlled by tribes that want to set up stations intended to serve tribal land areas.

“More tribally-owned stations will mean new opportunities for these rural communities,” predicted FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who supported the Order, “economic advancement from construction activity to erect broadcast facilities; advertisements for goods and services geared especially to tribal audiences and markets; career and employment opportunities in media-related fields; outlets for the distribution of diverse cultural programming and viewpoints, as well as public safety information for tribal lands. This initiative goes to the heart of localism.”

There are about 14,000 radio stations in the  United States, and 41 are licensed to federal recognized tribes. That’s less than a third of one percent of the total. To get technical, the FCC is giving Native Americans “Section 307(b) priority,” that being the language in the Communications Act that requires the Commission to “make such distribution of licenses, frequencies, hours of operation, and of power among the several States and communities as to provide a fair, efficient, and equitable distribution of radio service to each of the same.”

The FCC is adding some caveats to this windfall. Station owners who get Section 307(b) priority status won’t be able to downgrade their service level. But the agency is also looking into giving Native  American applicants extra bidding credits when they apply for stations.

The discussion leading up to this decision was somewhat contentious, with various groups, including the Catholic Radio Association, charging that Tribal Priority would represent an unfair or even race/identity based form of preference. But Native Public Media, which advocates for Native Americans, noted that the policy would not run afoul of various affirmative action standards, because Native Americans are classified “not as a discrete racial group, but, rather, as members of quasi-sovereign tribal entities whose lives and activities are governed by the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] in a unique fashion.”

Looks like that logic won the FCC over. “Tribes are uniquely situated to provide programming meeting their members’ needs,” the Order notes.  “The existence of a non-tribal commercial station or stations at a community located on tribal lands should not, in our view, preclude the establishment of a first local transmission service owned by a Tribe or Tribes.”


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