Calling All Women and Minority Media Owners (But Not Too Loudly)
by Kristal Brent Zook *
NEW YORK, August 2008 - "This is a bit more civilized than usual," one attendee could be heard saying upon entering the auditorium for the Federal Communications Commission event in New York City on Tuesday.
Unlike the emotional collection of media activists, protestors, concerned citizens and artists (some of whom directed hisses and sneers at FCC Chair Kevin Martin) who attended any one of the public hearings held by the commission over the past year, this one featured mostly suits and ties, all of whom coolly assembled without fanfare at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
The "Access to Capital Conference" (or "hearing" depending on your position) was a rare appearance made by all five commissioners, and the realization of a promise made by the FCC last winter.
While Republican commissioners emphasized that the meeting's primary purpose was to introduce investors to minorities and women entrepreneurs - Commissioner Robert McDowell even noted that he'd "like to hear the sound of checks being written" - Democrats had reform in mind, and a desire to highlight ongoing federal barriers to accessing capital and media licenses.
Democratic Commissioner Jonathan Copps began in his usual straightforward way, thanking everyone for gathering to look at "the shameful state of minority ownership." "Let's tell it like it is," he added. "It's been bad - very bad, for minorities."
"Do you know of any women who own a station, or have tried to own a station?" I asked Amy B. Lotz, managing director of the American Women in Radio & Television, as I trolled through the auditorium's lobby, looking for real faces.
"Well, I know mostly women who've tried and failed," she said with a wry smile.
"Are you an owner?" I asked Barbara Lawrence, whose nametag identified her with KMCC-TV in Las Vegas.
Lawrence told me that she was co-owner of several television stations, including KHIZ-TV in Los Angeles and KTRG in San Antonio, in addition to the Las Vegas holding. She happened to be in New York, she said, and came to the hearing mostly "to see old friends."
"Traditionally, women are not welcome in this business," she explained when asked why there was a need for this conference.
So how did she do it?
"It's complicated," she said, looking suddenly tired and perhaps, a little sad. "It's not something I can explain in five minutes."
The short version was this: While attending Fordham University in New York she was able to meet William Paley. This was around 1980, she said, when CBS was launching its cable channel. She was given the opportunity to buy stations. Later, a religious group-whose name she didn't care to share-helped her to get a foot in the door as an owner.
Today it's virtually impossible for an individual woman to buy a full power television station, said Lawrence. The sentiment was echoed by others. Unless one inherits a station, the only real possibilities are in low-power television, and even then, mostly in small and medium sized markets.
"It takes tens of billions of dollars to own a station," said Lawrence. "There are FCC issues, legal issues, engineering issues, financial issues. It takes a lifetime of work."
Diane Sutton of ShootingStar Broadcasting said that she was able to become an owner because she had two things, information and access. Sutton, who now does training for potential media owners, says that it's important to know "how to write a business plan, how to secure equity, and how to get to know the brokers and bankers before you need the money."
She also spoke about the virtues of the tax certificate, a federal policy incentive that was repealed in 1995 despite the fact that it increased minority ownership by fivefold during its 17 years of existence. Part of a larger Minority Ownership Policy instituted by an innovative young FCC attorney, Frank Washington, it rewarded radio or TV station owners by allowing them to defer capital gains tax if they sold stations to minority members.
Not only should the tax certificate have been preserved, argued Diane Sutton, but it should have also been expanded to include women "which, surprisingly, it did not."
About the Author: Kristal Brent Zook is an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra University in New York, and the author of I See Black People: The Rise and Fall of African American-Owned Television and Radio (Nation Books, March 2008). She can be reached at www.kristalbrentzook.com.