From the Corner Office – April 2010

April 5, 2010

THE ISSUES SHOULD BE ON THE RADIOPeter Smyth

You have probably heard, from multiple sources, that the recent Supreme Court decision allowing corporations more freedom to engage in political advertising was a significant decision for our industry. Basically, the Justices said that a corporation or union has the same rights to engage in political advertising as individuals. Previously, under the McCain-Feingold Act, they were prohibited from expressly advocating for the election or defeat of a particular candidate, and prohibited from even mentioning a candidate in issue advertising during a 30- to 60-day window immediately before an election.

Why is this significant for radio?

The experts estimate that political spending of all kinds will weigh in at $4.2 billion for this upcoming midterm election. This compares to a little less than $3 billion in 2008. There are other reasons for the increase, including the growth of grassroots giving that really took off during the Obama campaign, the increased passion on both sides of the political spectrum which spurs giving by major donors, and the very nature of the issues confronting our country at this point in our history.

Whatever the reasons, political spending is going to be an enormous opportunity for radio, and many in our industry are already gearing up to make our case to the political consultants and agencies that will control these dollars. The fact that we are becoming proactive in this advertising category is overdue and welcome news.

But I believe that there is more we need to do than simply make our pitch to issue and candidate buyers. For as massive as their spending has become, in most cases, politicians rely on broadcast television to get their message across, and blanket their markets with the same copy over and over. Some people believe that is message discipline, a practice highly valued in political circles. In my judgment, this makes for a lot of repetition and waste, as political media planners overuse frequency to push harder and louder as election day nears.

Why they don’t take advantage of radio’s targetability has always been a mystery to me. The normal political or issue campaign takes place almost exclusively within the news and news/talk formats. It seems that it hasn’t dawned on political advertisers that it would be smart to tailor their messages for the numerous lifestyle groups available across all formats on the dial. As an example, the recent healthcare debate had vastly different priorities, depending on the age of the listeners. On the pro-reform side, a reassuring spot for retirees, a clear explanation of future benefits to the 25-44 age group, and a discussion of immediate changes for those 55-64 would have more clearly and convincingly made this complicated issue understandable to the average citizen. Instead, we were all treated to the same overheated rhetoric from both sides; more a steel cage match than a campaign to inform and engage the majority of the electorate.

I believe that radio stations of all formats need to identify the influential political agencies and lobbying firms in their area and make the case that we want to be part of the discussion. We have significant numbers of voters listening to our stations who are not inundated with issue or political advertising at every break, and therefore are more open to the message. Our listeners are, in many cases, the swing voters who these advertisers so covet. A preference for music over talking heads does not indicate a lack of political engagement or intellectual capacity. Whether someone listens to Big & Rich or The Black Eyed Peas, they still want to understand the issues confronting all of us and to develop an informed opinion on them.

I urge our music-based stations to get involved in the public debate, not just by soliciting issue advertising, but also by devoting some of their own programming time to discussion of the issues of the day. Whether it’s a long-form program, a short news report, or a feature story on the issues, we have the talent and the obligation to inform and engage our listeners. I’m not saying that we should take sides, but that we should educate as well as entertain our audiences. I may be old fashioned, but I still believe in our obligation to the public trust, and in this case, to the public appetite for accurate, impartial information. If we truly believe that we are a vital part of our local communities, then we need to act like it. When it comes to local and regional issues, we may be the only media to take an unbiased approach. That’s a service that makes us more relevant and appreciated by our listeners.

Would it be easier and perhaps make an infinitesimal increase in ratings to play another song? Perhaps, but the value of our radio stations is more than just ratings and revenue; it’s how we contribute to the good of our communities.

I always want to know what’s on your mind; you can feel free to pose any questions that you’d like me to respond to at AskPeter@greatermedia.com.

Best regards,

Peter