Ethnic Media Grows Up

Will increasing mainstream attention alter the ethnic media landscape?

By Hua Hsu Sep 15, 2002

From Arab American newspaper competition in rural Michigan to Hindi pop tunes anchoring Radio Asia in Tampa, Florida, the past decade has seen an inspiring spike in the number of national and local radio stations, newspapers, magazines, web portals, public and cable television networks catering to the nation’s various ethnic communities. But paralleling this somewhat grassroots growth, ethnic media has become a major player aboveground as well, seen most noticeably with NBC’s recent acquisition of the national, 24-hour Telemundo network.

Though no concrete figures exist for ethnic media nationwide, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the startling growth of print and television journalism in regions like California and New York is by no means anomalous. A study released this year by New California Media, a confederation of more than 400 print, broadcast, and online ethnic media organizations, estimated that 84 percent of Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans in the state had some contact with ethnic media outlets. More than half voiced a preference for ethnic broadcasts or publications over English-language ones, and 40 percent said they usually paid more attention to advertisements in ethnic rather than "general market" media. Similarly, New York’s Independent Press Association counted 200 ethnic newspapers and magazines running in the city, an increase of 33 percent from 1990. Fewer figures exist for the states between, but anecdotal evidence suggests that where you’ll find immigrant communities, you’re sure to find matching immigrant newspapers, radio or television programs to match.

In light of this startling growth, it should come as no surprise that mainstream players are getting into the act and trying to tap into these enclaves of prospective consumers. The recent acquisition of the Telemundo network by NBC for $1.98 billion had many initially scratching their heads–why had NBC seemingly overpaid for the underachieving network, a distant runner-up to Univision in Latino households nationwide? But if the growing Telemundo–which currently draws between 15 to 20 percent of Latino viewers–allows NBC access to the rising Latino population, in a few years that total may seem like a bargain. For companies like Viacom or NBC, it is beginning to make more business sense to acquire proven niche companies like BET (Black Entertainment Television) or Telemundo at high costs rather than going through the trouble of starting from scratch. After all, the viewer trust and community authenticity inherited through a name like Telemundo is priceless, especially for a hulking, faceless brand like NBC. Factor in the general consolidation of corporate media outlets and the increasing redefinition of ethnic communities as lucrative ethnic markets, and perhaps the NBC purchase is merely the tip of the iceberg. Is ethnic media going mainstream? Better yet–can it?

Serve the People

After my first year of college, I spent the summer interning at a local Asian American weekly in San Francisco. Staying afloat on a shoestring budget and the earnest goodwill of its core staffers, the paper skimmed along with a consistent mix of neighborhood news and national politics. I remember one day the managing editor (who happened to be white) was arguing with one of the section editors about the grave discrepancy in their respective salaries, concluding that the lower-paid Chinese American should relish the chance to serve his community. I believe "psychic salary" is what he termed this intangible bonus.

Though there were actually more practical reasons for the difference in pay between the two editors, the anecdote illustrates the complicated ethical dynamics of the ethnic press. On one hand, there is the presumption that media should reflect the community it intends to serve, act as a political mouthpiece and create some picture of consensus; fulfilling such duties is often the only way such outlets subsist. Critics, though, contend that this just makes for softer journalism that ultimately privileges advertisers and ideology over balanced coverage. Proponents respond that ethnic reporting provides a necessary counterweight to an increasingly corporate media; as well, information on immigration services and tip-sheets for maneuvering through government bureaucracies usually doesn’t make it into the major dailies.

Such newspapers have definitely had a hand in shaping community identities as well. Perhaps the most famous example was the Chicago Defender, the African American weekly founded in 1905 on a 25-cent investment. The paper–which went daily in 1956–was one of the century’s most influential voices from an ethnic perspective, pushing for desegregation and integration, and highlighting the destitute conditions for African Americans in both the North and South. During World War I its pages were instrumental in pushing the Great Migration movement that resulted in droves of African Americans moving from the segregated South to the North.

Oppositional Views

Ten years ago, as the pent-up frustrations of the Rodney King verdict spilled onto the mazy streets of Los Angeles, it was the city’s network of ethnic, community-minded radio that helped rescue workers and concerned locals navigate the dicey disaster areas. Abandoned by police and given up for lost by city officials, the ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles relied on networks like the black-owned KGFJ and KJLH, Radio Korea and Radio Fiesta to broadcast pleas for peace and directions to hot spots.

In a similar time of crisis, it has become the habit of ethnic press to host the pesky, difficult and ultimately unpopular questions that would likely invite censure were they voiced in the mainstream. Post-9/11, it’s been hard enough to read that an oppositional view exists, let alone learn the intricacies of where those views originate from. Where mainstream outlets fearful of reprisal only occasionally offer criticism of war or foreign policy, the pages of Arab-American dailies and weeklies frame the issues in vitally distinct and bold ways that are critical of mainstream portrayals. A headline from the Michigan-based Arab American News pleaded, "We feel America’s pain, why can’t America feel ours?" At times, it seems as though the ethnic press is the only available outlet to voice such frustrations.

The African American and Korean American press each took different, more insightful stances than the mainstream media on the Soon Ja Du/Latasha Harlins story in 1991, the former describing the criminal justice system’s betrayal of African Americans and the latter focusing on the mainstream media’s divide-and-conquer-style race-baiting. Similarly, Asian American press–even fairly cautious outlets like AsianWeek and nationalist, foreign-language dailies–stood firmly in opposition of the mainstream in both the campaign finance and Wen Ho Lee scandals. Chinese-language newspapers provided some of the most detailed and balanced analysis of Lee and his family’s plight. In both cases, the Asian American press avoided the mainstream pitfall of positing a monolithic "Chinese" (as opposed to tracing the nuances of Chinese, Taiwanese, and Asian American) identity that fed espionage scenarios but made little sense in the actual communities.

The Color of Money

But not all ethnic outlets were founded with such noble intentions, and many simply follow a time-proven trajectory: track what is profitable, absorb it and re-implement it as authentic. As Jeff Yang, former editor of A. Magazine and unofficial don of the early-1990s growth in Asian American media, explained at the height of his magazine’s popularity in the late-1990s, "This heightened interest in the ethnic media market has nothing to do with equal rights or civil rights. It has to do with the bottom line. The only color that matters is green."

Telemundo, for example, was founded in 1986 by dealmakers Saul Steinberg and Henry Silverman of Reliance Capital Group after they noticed the needs of America’s Latino population were going largely ignored by mainstream outlets. Foreseeing the growing market clout of this sprawling group, they began putting Telemundo together by purchasing television networks in Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Puerto Rico. They would eventually leave the network when profits came too slowly.

Riding the good fortunes of a boom economy, the late-1990s saw unprecedented growth and opportunities for ethnic outlets. After withstanding mid-1990s bankruptcy and a series of poor decisions, Telemundo eventually scrapped its way to the number two spot in Latino homes across the country. Enthusiasm for the Internet bandwagon insured deep pockets for ethnic portals and sites like A. Magazine’s, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons’ and the Microsoft-sponsored

Beyond the overall exuberance of a cresting economy, the late-1990s growth in ethnic media was also due to successful portrayals of readers and viewers as potential consumers, and with census data confirming over one-quarter of the population as "minority," it quickly became imperative for media’s heavy hitters to get involved. In 1985, on the eve of BET’s five-year-anniversary, network founder Robert Johnson explained that he gauged his company’s success on the size of the niche it had formed for itself in the mainstream television business. "The fact is that if BET went out of business, the cable industry would have to invent another service just like it." The sentiment was echoed recently when BET was sold to Viacom when one insider suggested, "It would not have made sense for Viacom to build a company like BET. It would have cost them more. So they decided if we can’t beat them we should join them."

Even the ethnic players are getting into the game. In June, Univision bought leading U.S. Spanish-language radio broadcaster Hispanic Broadcasting, adding 55 radio stations to its vast television, music and Internet holdings. Many saw the purchase as a response to NBC’s Telemundo purchase. Before being acquired by Viacom, BET attempted to bolster its online presence by purchasing Ethnic media had successfully marketed its cosmopolitan, upwardly-mobile side. For the upper echelon, this was clearly coming a long way from reporting on neighborhood cultural festivals or graduations; for the fledgling community papers with comparably smaller circulation rates, it meant less big-name ad money and a more crowded playing field. Ethnic media has clearly found its niche, but what are the limitations of that placement? Does space still exist for its oppositional possibilities, or does the growing interest from the mainstream signal tighter controls?

Corner Newsstand

Despite the failure of niche sites like 360HipHop and click2Asia, many see the world of online communities and portals as an open, democratic and ultimately unregulated alternative. Community Connect started in 1997 as an umbrella for different online ethnic communities; today, AsianAvenue, MiGente, and BlackPlanet boast nearly eight million members between them. A recent example of this online clout was the Asian American community’s flap with clothiers Abercrombie and Fitch for an offensive line of T-shirts featuring racist, antiquated caricatures. AsianAvenue was the nerve center for "organizing" and the online campaign caught headlines and resulted in the company pulling the line.

As the example suggests, though, it is clear that online alternatives offer a picture of community mobilization that is still skewed by the digital divide. Print media still remains the most vital and growing way for immigrant communities and communities of color to see the business of politics through the distinct, out-of-the-way details of their own lives. Though the current industry trend of cracking the ethnic market by buying and strategically absorbing the brand names of smaller players promises to alter the ethnic media landscape, the challenge of insuring quality content and space for oppositional politics remains the same. Beyond questions of finance, the ethnic media is and will continue to be an essential alternative, especially at a time when national media becomes increasingly standardized and centralized. And, as long as immigrants and communities of color long for news told in languages or perspectives familiar to them, folks like Kamlesh Gandhi, owner of the Pronto Grocery in an especially diverse part of Queens, New York, will continue to sell far more dailies in Chinese or Korean than in English: "No matter what the stock market does, I never sell more than 15 Wall Street Journals