In barrios, inner-city communities and immigrant enclaves nationwide, ethnic media reporters cover stories often ignored by mainstream newsrooms. Now, with a media deregulation plan being formulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), critics fear that ethnic media's civic role may be undermined.
''The FCC has failed even to consider what abandoning its media rules will do to African American, Latino, Asian, and many, many other communities,'' says Michael J. Copps, one of two Democrats on the FCC, a five-person regulatory body appointed by the president.
Stories like the nationwide fight for drivers' licenses for undocumented immigrants get front-page treatment in the nation's immigrant community and in-language press, part of ethnic media's unique function as an information link between its readers and the larger U.S. society. In California alone, over 1,000 ethnic media outlets serve booming populations. At least seven ethnic dailies in the state have circulations of 50,000 or more, hundreds of radio stations are aimed at ethnic listeners and, in Los Angeles, a television station focuses on Central Americans.
Critics say changes to media ownership rules being considered at the FCC amount to a sweeping deregulation that will accelerate big corporations' entry into ethnic markets. They say the strong community focus of ethnic media could be eroded and that minority owners may be squeezed out.
Existing restrictions on ownership help those new to media or with limited funds more easily enter the field, says Flix Gutirrez, a visiting professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Communications. ''If these entry points are not preserved, the communications sector would carry into the 21st century the gender and ethnic disparities of the 20th,'' Guiterrez says.
Under relaxed ownership rules, some ethnic media owners will also face tougher competition for ad dollars, and many will receive buyout offers, Gutirrez says.
Ethnic markets are increasingly attractive to major corporations. Spending on the Hispanic ad market alone was a record $3 billion in 2002, according to the Association of Hispanic Ad Agencies.
Current media ownership rules tend to keep big media invested in the mainstream or ''general market.'' The rules limit one owner to eight radio stations and one of the top four TV stations in a city. Also, one company cannot own a daily newspaper and a radio or television station in the same market.
These rules, and others, are likely to be lifted or relaxed in the vote scheduled for June 2, according to FCC officials. Michael K. Powell, son of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, chairs the five-member FCC and is a proponent of media deregulation.
Jonathan S. Adelstein, the other Democratic commissioner, says the expected changes will trigger a ''tsunami'' of consolidation that favors conglomerates such as AOL Time Warner, News Corp., Disney and Viacom.
The head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Ciro Rodrguez (D-Tex.), sent a letter to Powell expressing worry at the proposed rule changes in light of the ''rapid consolidation currently taking place in the Latino media market'' and its unclear impact on Hispanic-owned media.
With investors such as U.S. radio giant Clear Channel and California billionaire A. Jerrold Perenchio playing pivotal roles, a proposed $3.5 billion merger announced in 2002 folded Hispanic Broadcasting Inc., the largest Latino radio chain, into No. 1 Spanish-language television network Univision.
Telemundo the second-largest Spanish-language network was purchased by NBC in 2002.
Some have accused Univision, a publicly traded company, of trying to monopolize the Latino media with its Internet, record label, television and now radio interests. But Stephanie Pillersdorf, Univision spokeswoman, says a muscular Univision helps the entire Hispanic media attract investment and high-profile ad clients. ''I think it was about time there was a Hispanic company that could compete with the likes of AOL Time Warner,'' Pillersdorf says.
Pillersdorf says Univision can grow without losing the community focus that has characterized its news stations.
Powell has said he believes big companies are often in consumers' interests, since they can invest in more varied and high-quality programming. Plus, he says, technology like cable and Internet has helped produce a dizzying array of outlets with niche audiences. He argues ''fierce competition'' leads to a media that is responsive to U.S. consumers.
But Harrison Chastang, news director of San Francisco's African American-owned KPOO-FM, said past media deregulation led to less competition and less choice.
''One of the biggest victims of radio consolidation has been Black-owned radio,'' Chastang wrote recently in an editorial for the San Francisco Bay View, a Black newspaper.
As a result of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, five corporations, including Clear Channel, which has over 1,200 stations, now own 80 percent of U.S. radio stations, Chastang wrote.
Jos del Castillo, publisher of San Francisco's El Mensajero weekly, says he and others in community publishing could be affected by the scrapping of the rule that prohibits one owner from having both broadcast properties and a daily newspaper in one area: ''Someone like Univision could decide to get involved in publishing and create all kinds of havoc.''
Felix Guo, station manager of the Chinese-language KAZN radio in Los Angeles, part of the Chinese-owned Multicultural Broadcasting Inc., says his mid-sized company is financially strong and not worried about surviving under new rules.
However, Guo says, true ethnic voices may become harder to find, since deregulation will favor bigger companies that, regardless of their commitment to ethnic audiences, are less steeped in the concerns of specific communities. ''We need more, not less, regulation,'' he said. ''Particularly in these times of catastrophic events, we need to hear that weaker voice. It's that minority voice being heard that makes democracy work.''
Marcelo Ballve (email@example.com) is an associate editor at Pacific News Service.
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