Monday, July 9, 2012

Roundhouse Roundup: Political Ads: Demise or Salvation for Public Radio?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
July 8, 2012

Will public radio and television soon cease to be an oasis from the sound and fury of political advertising?

It’s quite possible, though thankfully nothing’s likely to change before this election. And the local public radio station has assured its listeners that despite the temptations of filthy lucre from the politicos, KSFR will not accept political ads even if the practice becomes legal.
The future face of public broadcasting?

Last April a three-judge federal Appeals Court panel in San Francisco struck down as unconstitutional the decades-long ban on political ads on public broadcasting outlets. On June 29, the U.S. Department of Justice requested the appeals court rehear the case, saying the April decision “threatens the noncommercial, educational character of public broadcasting.”

KSFR and KPBS, a San Diego TV station, are the only two public broadcast stations across the country I could find that have created a policy against accepting political ads.

“It is a time-honored tradition of public broadcasting to be independent of controversial, one-sided advertising,” KSFR’s board said in a statement shortly after the court decision. “At KSFR News, especially, our editorial position is to be as objective as humanly possible. … The board and staff remain committed to keeping Santa Fe public radio safe and secure from the manipulations of outside interests so that we may continue to serve the public interest.”

(Full disclosure upfront: I’ve been a volunteer with KSFR for nearly 20 years. For most of that time, I’ve produced two weekly music shows. (THIS and THIS) I don’t even know most of the station’s board members and I am not paid for my work there.)

KSFR’s news director, Bill Dupuy, was on the air Thursday afternoon during the station’s fundraiser using the station’s stance as a fundraising talking point. This raised a lot of positive comments from donors, Dupuy said later, including an email from a listener who wrote, “I support KSFR’s position on this issue entirely. I have just put my own money where my mouth is, so to speak, by pledging to KSFR for the first time.”

“It sets a bad precedent,” Dupuy said. “It could undermine the whole idea of public radio.”

Richard Towne, general manager of KUNM radio in Albuquerque, agreed. He said Thursday that while his station hasn’t taken an official stand on the court ruling, “I don’t think anyone in noncommercial [broadcasting] wants to see this happen,” he said. “It would fundamentally change our sound.”

Both Towne and Dupuy expressed concern that a lift on the political ad ban might mean stations would be required to accept ads from candidates. Proponents of the idea could argue that denying someone’s ad would be contrary to free speech. Robin Hagen Cane, writing in a blog at last week, doesn’t think so, however.

“Public broadcasting stations would not be required to take political ad revenue under the ruling, but stations that are struggling would probably be tempted,” Cane wrote.

Indeed, getting a share of the political ad pile could mean big cash bucks for a public station. Cane quoted Laura Martin, an entertainment and Internet analyst for New York investment bank Needham & Co., who told the Boston Globe that spending on political ads on local television stations alone could reach $3.2 billion this year.

That’s a lot of tote bags.

The Globe in April quoted a consultant for the Democratic Party saying public radio advertising could be great for liberal and moderate candidates in radio markets dominated by conservative talk shows. It would be “better than Christmas, better than winning the lottery,’’ consultant Michael Goldman said, because public-radio audiences generally favor Democrats.

I guess one way for listeners and viewers to fight back against stations that start running political ads: During the next fund drive, instead of pledging money, pledge to vote against any candidate who advertises on your favorite public station.