When the Federal Communications Commission recently abandoned an affirmative-action policy in awarding broadcast ownership licenses, the chairman of the National Black Media Coalition (NBMC) said, ``We are prepared to fight the FCC every step of the way.'' This was no idle threat. Chairman Pluria Marshall has hurled amazingly accurate stones at the goliath broadcast industry for over 10 years now. He is credited with an industrywide 10 percent increase in minority hires and wrangling millions of dollars for black college communications programs and scholarships.
The coalition held its 13th annual conference last week and remains the only full-time black organization agitating for a larger piece of the broadcast pie for minorities, including women. Some of the companies that have reached affirmative-action agreements with Marshall are Times-Mirror, Gannett, Post-Newsweek, Albritton Communications, Turner Broadcasting, Multimedia Broadcasting, and Cox Communications.
One of Marshall's surest weapons has been the ``petition to deny.'' When radio and TV owners fail to improve their minority hiring records, as mandated by Congress, Marshall's coalition asks the FCC to take away the valuable licenses that keep broadcasters in business. Usually the company comes to terms with NBMC.
In addition to license renewals, another stone in his economic slingshot is monitoring sales of stations. When Gannett planned acquisition of Combined Communications Corporation (CCC) for $370 million in stock in 1978, NBMC threatened opposition to the transfer of CCC's seven TV stations and 12 radio stations. A delay could have cost Gannett millions. Seven months later Gannett entered into a hiring and training agreement.
``Companies have realized that it was to their benefit to reach agreement with us. Often the cost of what we were asking was minuscule compared to the cost of fighting us,'' Marshall says. ``When we held up a $40 million acquisition by Times-Mirror, they came to an agreement with us that totaled about $2 million. The way I look at it, we saved them $38 million.''
Marshall says NBMC is a ``civil rights organization.'' A photo journalist by trade, he began his work as an activist in Houston during the 1960s. He led efforts to integrate the schools and boycott the Burger King chain to win black franchises. As part of his civil rights work, Marshall filed license challenges against 11 Houston stations and won hiring commitments.
Now Marshall is warring with the FCC itself. On Sept. 12 the FCC filed a court brief taking the position that ``preference'' for minorities and women in licensing is unconstitutional. The preference is a ``tie breaker'' when all other licensing criteria are equal. The FCC was asked to examine the constitutionality issue by the US Court of Appeals in Washington. Congress instituted preference by statute to correct years of women and minorities locked out of licensing.
The FCC's brief contrasts with findings by Congress and the US Civil Rights Commission that preference is justified by a history of systematic discrimination. The FCC itself, in previous license hearings, has also promoted this reasoning.
Marshall says the FCC is seeking to keep the industry in the hands of an ``old-boy network,'' an elite group of white men. He argues that to question the constitutionality or necessity of preference is to ignore the track record of exclusion driven by legal segregation in the first 40 years of broadcasting. The first minority-owned station was established in 1956. Even with preference, minorities represent only 2 percent of the 12,000 radio and television stations in America.
``Instead of eliminating the preferences, the FCC should put into effect other measures that will increase and enhance minority ownership,'' he says.
Henry Geller, a Marshall compatriot from Duke University and a former FCC general counsel, says the FCC must follow the preference rule. ``The FCC is a creature of Congress and subject to the strictures of Congress.'' Congress has said that the public interest is best served by diversity on the airwaves. Statute requires that minority groups have increased opportunity to own stations to facilitate diversification.
At the conference, Mr. Geller was already planning strategy against the FCC. He told 150 broadcasters, assembled at an NBMC workshop, to start gathering facts to substantiate that minority ownership results in broadened programming.
Marshall has been criticized as an extortionist who has manipulated the politics of oppression for monetary gain. His coalition has a $400,000-a-year budget, much of it contributions from media companies. He commands a $50,000-a-year salary with his wife serving as executive director at $30,000 a year. But Marshall sees no conflict of interest nor offers any apologies for blatant nepotism.
The media companies ``know that their relationship with us is only as good as their commitment to black people,'' he says. ``As far as helping my family, this is very much a family operation. Nobody says anything about Jews helping Jews or Italians helping their family members.''