WASHINGTON – Critics of the Federal Communications Commission report on discriminatory advertising practices said the agency had no business commissioning the study and has no power to enforce its findings.
The report, released last month, found that minority-owned and oriented radio stations earn less per listener than general- format stations.
But it also said that the FCC could not solve the problem on its own. It recommended that the agency enlist the help of the White House and the Federal Trade Commission to ban discrimination in the advertising industry.
That has some in the industry asking why the FCC had the study done in the first place.
“It is not something that should be regulated,” said B. Eric Rhoads, chief executive officer and publisher of Radio Ink magazine. “The FCC’s job is to regulate signals … they are overstepping their bounds.
“If the problem exists, it’s up to each of us to accept the responsibility to change it, not for the government to change it,” Rhoads said of the discrimination claims.
Gary Fries, president of the Radio Advertising Bureau, agreed. “I do not believe the FCC has any authority within the advertising community,” he said.
But a spokeswoman for the FCC said the agency is within its bounds.
Cathy Sandoval said the FCC was working under a congressional mandate issued in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 – known as Section 257.
She said that commissioners learned of numerous barriers to market entry, growth and competition – often faced by women and minorities – during a 1996 radio industry forum. It was then that they decided to pursue the study.
Even if the commission had the authority, Rhoads said, its study “will have no impact whatsoever” and is “just a personal vendetta of [FCC Chairman] Bill Kennard.”
Rhoads said Kennard, the FCC’s first African-American chairman is “trying to make points with the black community for his own personal gain.”
But Sandoval points out that Kennard was not head of the FCC when the study began in 1997. She said the study was conducted simply because it came to the FCC’s attention that certain “advertising practices were a barrier to diversity and competition.”
Ultimately, Rhoads said, the problem must be dealt with using market pressure, not government pressure.
“If a particular ethnic community has evidence that a particular advertiser is discriminating against their market … they should use media pressure and boycott,” he said.
But government pressure may provide a much-needed and effective way to get advertisers to stop their discriminatory practices, said Debra Merskin, who teaches about advertising at the University of Oregon.
Merskin said that except in some instances, like fraudulent ads, the advertising industry is largely self-regulated and self-policing — and it wants to remain that way.
She said the “threat of government intervention might be enough to make some changes.”