Even Late – Political Dollars Are Great

| September 27, 2012

By Mike Kinosian
TALKERS magazine
Managing Editor/West Coast Bureau Chief

With less than six weeks remaining before the presidential election, radio account executives in battleground or “swing states” such as Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Colorado are most likely experiencing carpal tunnel, owing to the fast and furious amount of sales orders they are writing.

In locales however where the race for the White House is already a forgone conclusion (“Blue” or “Red”), things are generally not as rosy – at least not yet.  “With the exception of a few states, there does seem to be a lull,” observes Portland (Maine) Radio Group president/general manager Cary Pahigian.

Huddling with several national rep folks last week in Dallas though, Pahigian was told some political dollars could be forthcoming as we inch closer to Election Day on November 6.  “Their advice is to hang on and expect some late money,” he notes.

That slow ramp-up has been somewhat of a pattern the last couple of years.  “Depending on the landscape and circumstances, television is first in line and radio is second,” Pahigian reports.  “Everything changes though if there are issues and/or a tight race going on.”

Virtually every poll indicates the sextet of New England states, including Mitt Romney’s adopted Massachusetts, will go to President Obama in November.  “Romney will not win Massachusetts,” predicts native New Englander Pahigian, who adds the only New England state in play for the ex-Massachusetts governor is New Hampshire.  “That is it for him in this part of the world.  Obama and Romney made one or two visits apiece to this area.  It was mostly fundraising and minimal campaigning.  This is not Ohio though, so we aren’t seeing them 16 times.”

It would be understandable if Pahigian were discouraged that political has not exploded, but he accepts the reality that the visual medium has become a powerful force in that advertising category.  “Whatever presidential money that has flowed in has hit television because TV here reaches into parts of New Hampshire,” the former station manager of Boston powerhouse WBZ-AM explains.  “Some New Hampshire merchants and businesses utilize television in this market.”

That situation notwithstanding, Pahigian is aggressive on the political side.  “There are many local races and we contact the campaigns,” he notes.  “Granted, they do not have a ton of money to spend on advertising but we do approach those involved in running for offices like state representative; state senate; and sheriff.  We have to keep in mind that television is primarily for the big races – president and U.S. senate – but when it comes to smaller ones, that’s radio and that’s us.”

While radio must be content with its runner-up status behind television vis-à-vis political advertising, Pahigian rationalizes, “We are not the newspaper industry.  If you put up a chart of their political dollars over the last 20 to 30 years, the line would go to the right and then straight down.  I cannot speak about outdoor because – believe it or not – it is banned in Maine; there is none of it here whatsoever.”

Evaluating online’s impact and the portion it takes from the political advertising pie is a thorny exercise with Pahigian candidly stating that he cannot put a number on it or whether it is drawing anything from traditional broadcast media.  “I don’t know if it is as dominant as some people thought it would be at this point,” the onetime Sconnix Broadcasting vice president of operations comments.  “At least in this market, you still see oversized, glossy postcards being sent to homes.  Frankly, direct-mail is a bigger competitor in the state senate, state representative, and sheriff campaigns.”

Attempts at making an accurate forecast regarding the amount of revenue that stations will realize through political advertising can be a crapshoot, but Pahigian is analytical with modeling the current election against others that were comparable.  “You need to know how many races are involved; if it is a congressional year; the kinds of issues on the ballot; and if it there is a gubernatorial or senate campaign.  In addition, you have to anticipate the number of races and the interest in each one.  The candidates are important because there could be a situation where a popular candidate could run away with an easy win.  Frankly, the infusion of a hot issue can draw a lot of money from out of state.”

Selling without numbers

Similarities exist in Portland between what is happening now and the last presidential election cycle, although there was a little more activity four years ago.  “We have seen a late surge in the last several elections,” Pahigian points out.  “Some of it has to do with money being there and the candidates have to spend it or else.  It also could be a case of them getting locked out on television and funneling that money into radio.”

Issue-oriented advertising dealing with such matters as gay marriage or building casinos have traditionally benefitted Portland radio facilities.  “There has always been an issue, or two, or three that generated some money, but that has not happened for us yet,” Pahigian laments.  “It has been very, very quiet on the issue front.”

Voters in the Pine Tree state will elect a successor to retiring Republican Senator Olympia Snowe with Democratic State Senator Cynthia Dill, former Governor (independent) Angus King, and Republican Secretary of State Charlie Summers vying for that seat.  Apparently though, that contest is not close.  “King is very popular and is leading the way,” Pahigian reports.  “There has not been the influx of money as we thought we would see, particularly since [Snowe] stepped down unexpectedly.”

Whenever decisions to place political advertising on a Portland station are made locally, Pahigian opines Portland Radio Group enjoys a great advantage because “We have a high-profile station and it is easy to tell our story.  WGAN is the major player and it is, by far, the state’s leading news/talk station.  Whatever a candidate’s political persuasion, they understand the power of a big-time, radio station like that.  WGAN is WINS and KFI all in one.”

Coincidentally, the second job Pahigian had in radio 30 years ago was operations and program director of WGAN.  “It was different ownership, different building, and different people,” he recalls.  “I never thought I would return in this capacity.  Our terrific program and news director Jeff Wade deserves the credit for what WGAN is – he is fantastic.  It is fun for me to be involved after being gone for so many years.  Larger broadcast groups brought things like research and higher levels of training that I did not see when I was here in the 1980s.  In addition to [Portland Radio Group parent] Saga Communications, we have Hearst, Gannett, Cumulus, and Atlantic Coast in this market.  There was a different, less competitive feel in the 1980s with more homegrown ownership and management.”

Most often, WGAN is the first choice in a political campaign’s spending budget, but if a candidate wants to advertise on another station, the highly engaging Pahigian declares, “We are certainly happy to quickly, enthusiastically inform them that they can expand their message on a number of other avenues through our group.”

That would entail chatting up WGAN siblings adult alternative WCLZ; hot AC “Coast 93.1″ (WMGX); “Today’s Country” WPOR; “Big Hits Y100.9″ (classic hits WYNZ) “Maine’s Talk Radio” WZAN; and “Advice for Life” WBAE & WVAE.  “We have been very fortunate to benefit with political advertising on these stations,” Pahigian comments.  “WMGX and WPOR are significant stations in the market so they garner a good amount of advertising dollars – political or otherwise.”

In light of the fact that Saga is not an Arbitron subscriber, its PRG stations do not appear in the Portland book, however Pahigian points out, “We share the good amount of qualitative research we now have with local advertisers and agencies.  It has been quite effective, not only to us but it enhances how radio looks to advertisers.”

Qualitative data that Pahigian utilizes illustrates the power of radio in general, and his stations specifically.  “Agencies call to say what they are looking for and want the station to do all the work,” he remarks.  “In some ways, when you take them through the rate, you put some of the work back on them with what they are trying to accomplish.  We hope it allows an opening to talk about how our radio stations work for clients and how we deliver.”

Business overall thus far this year has been inconsistent.  “You get some running room but then you hit a little bit of a slippery patch and slow down a hair,” Pahigian explains.  “Decisions by advertisers are much more deliberate.  There is a little skittishness and uncertainty.  The election might have a little to do with it.  People who are indecisive or nervous about the economy have a natural place to go.  They can say it would be better for them to wait until the next event.  In this case, the next ‘event’ is the presidential election.”

Mike Kinosian is the managing editor and West Coast bureau chief of TALKERS. He can be e-mailed at mikekinosian@gmail.com or phoned at 818-985-0244.

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Category: Features