Philip M. Napoli, Ph.D., Magis Professor of Communications and Media Management, is a huge fan of talk radio.
Daily newscasts courtesy of National Public Radio help get the 37-year-old through his long commute to work and his favorite on-air sports personality is New York Yankees broadcaster and Fordham University alumnus Michael Kay (FCRH ’82).
Napoli may love to surf the dial but that’s not to say that the director of the Donald McGannon Communication Research Center doesn’t see problems in the ever-volatile world of radio—and television, for that matter.
In fact, Napoli believes that both media are under increasing danger of losing their sense of localism and thus their grounding in the communities radio and television stations serve.
“Media content and services that address local interests and concerns,” Napoli said, “are essential to the welfare of local communities.” The problem, however, is that given policy changes in recent years, that essential role played by local radio and television station is under attack like never before.
For years, the federal government imposed strict limits on the number of television and radio stations a single company could own in one community. In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relaxed a variety of media ownership regulations. The move resulted in large media companies acquiring many more radio and television stations in the same market. The policy change sparked a widespread debate, with critics arguing that the rules would result in fewer companies controlling more of what Americans see and hear.
So far, Napoli said, the critics were on the right track.
“The biggest disparity we see is in terms of source diversity—the diversity of information sources available—given the increasing concentration of ownership of the major media outlets,” Napoli said. “The problem has been that policymakers have increasingly emphasized economic efficiency to the neglect of non-economic policy objectives such as diversity and localism.
“A media marketplace of diverse sources is inherently inefficient in that it’s more efficient to have one source covering a story, for example, than four or five different sources,” Napoli said.
The move by media companies to buy more stations and leave fewer independent voices in local communities has implications for society as a whole and minority communities in particular, Napoli said.
“Content flows from owners,” he said. “The statistics on minority ownership are really disappointing. It simply hasn’t kept pace with the increasing numbers of minorities in the country.”
So what can be done to fix the problem?
For Napoli, at least part of the answer lies with more research and the ability of scholars and others to document what exactly is happening across the country as large media companies gobble up local radio and television stations.
It won’t be easy, Napoli said, because researchers face the challenge of gaining access to data controlled by television and radio stations. It is an obstacle that inspired Napoli’s latest project: a study for the Social Science Research Council’s Necessary Knowledge for a Democratic Public Sphere program on the data access and quality issues that impede effective policy research.
“Unlike newspapers, no solid archival system exists for television news,” Napoli said. “If you wanted to compare news programming across stations, or across markets, you can’t, because no systematic archives are kept. Yet the FCC and Congress keep asking questions like, ‘Do different types of owners provide different slants on their news?’ and keep forming policy around whatever answers they can find.”
Napoli said the government’s role in the gathering of data necessary for conducting these kinds of analyses has diminished dramatically over the past 30 years due to the reduced reporting requirements for broadcast licensees and cable systems, and the privatization of many data gathering functions once done by the government.
“They key question is, ‘What system do we have in place to allow for the verification of the accuracy and reliability of these studies that can prove tremendously influential in policy decision-making,’” Napoli said. “An academic, policymaker or a public interest organization may not be able to analyze the data because they belong to a commercial data provider, and access can be difficult or extremely expensive to obtain.”
Napoli and his colleagues at the McGannon Center have recently published a paper in the Federal Communications Law Journal calling for “legislation that specifies that once a data source is utilized in any study submitted to, or conducted by, a regulatory agency, the underlying data for that research must be publicly available for reanalysis.”
For Napoli, such legislation would be a start to getting at answers about what the consolidation of radio and television stations is doing to the media landscape. It’s an issue that the McGannon Center will continue to examine in the years ahead.
“We need a certain amount of transparency there so that we as citizens can feel confident that the process was carried out in a way that truly serves the public interest,” Napoli said.