Thursday, October 16, 2008

Commercial vs. public media

The debate over to what extent the U.S. government should fund public media outlets goes back to this nation’s first radio broadcast. The U.S. has taken a much more hands-off approach than countries like Britain and Mexico, eschewing state-sponsored media, and the public airwaves have been largely dominated by commercial stations. Under the Reagan administration, further cuts were made to public broadcasting, leading to vocal outcry, especially from minority-owned public stations. At that time, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which the government founded to promote community-controlled radio, adjusted funding on a formula which increased the government’s contribution in proportion to donations from listeners. While that may have worked when listeners were primarily middle- and upper-class whites, it was a disaster for minority stations like Radio Bilinguë whose target audience was largely lower-income. Radio Bilinguë also suffered cuts at the state level in the early 1980s.

Cutting public radio funds was just the start as the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the industry, easing restrictions on multiple station ownership in both individual markets and nation-wide. The community service requirement that originally brought KGST’s “Comentarios and Entrevistas” program into existence has since been lifted. Radio became more and more corporate controlled, raising the question of whether the public actually had access to the public airwaves and whether those who did had the public’s best interests at heart.

Radio Bilinguë and Radio Campesina argue that they do not. Commercial stations are ratings driven; they will give the people what they want, not what they need, part of the reason for the rise of Spanish-language shock-jock anchors akin to Howard Stern. The economic aspect of their operations can make hiring news reporters prohibitively expensive, especially when they can sell as many advertisements with a cheap music format. KGST is the only Spanish-language commercial station in the Valley with local coverage, and news director Stella Romo said she no longer is able to go out and report because there is no one to cover for her as she is the entire news department.

The commercial nature of Spanish-language radio, which brought Spanish to the airwaves in the first place, sometimes prevents it from serving the informational needs of the Latino community, leading to an information gap, which Radio Bilinguë and Radio Campesina have aimed to fill. They were not the only ones concerned with getting information to Spanish-speakers; in 1979, the University of Maryland and the Johnson and Johnson Co. co-sponsored the U.S.’s first national conference on Latino public service programming. Several congressmen, Federal Communications Commission and media representatives attended. An assistant secretary from the Department of Housing and Urban Development said that the lack of informational programming targeted at Spanish-speakers had cut them off from many opportunities enjoyed by others.

No comments: