Election 2008: The Role of Radio

Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008, may seem far away to many, but to presidential candidates the countdown to that historic date has already begun. With so much at stake, politicians rely on multiple media outlets to get their messages out.

Radio has played an important role in past elections, and appears poised to do so once again. In fact, it is morphing, and its new iterations, such as Internet radio, satellite broadcasts and podcasting, are gaining the attention of leading candidates.

Starting with Jimmy Carter’s surprising win in the Iowa caucus in 1976, the battle for the White House has taken shape earlier and earlier every four years. The candidates have been jockeying for the pole position since the start of this year, and their jousting is expected to pick up steam during the fall. They need to lay the groundwork for the presidential primaries and caucuses slated to run from the middle of January until next summer.

Relying on the Airwaves

As the countdown to Election Tuesday continues, the ability to reach potential voters has become paramount for candidates, and many rely on radio to make their mark. “One reason why politicians turn to radio is because it is effective: Radio reaches over 210 million voting-age listeners every week,” Jeff Haley, president of the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), told the E-Commerce Times. Because of those numbers, politicians are expected to pump US$1 billion into radio advertising during the current campaign.

Radio reaches potential voters because it has become an integral part of many individuals’ lifestyle. Daily, they turn on the radio as they travel to and from work or to distract themselves as they piddle around the house or toil in the office. In addition, radio often serves as a quick news source, and those who turn to radio for the news tend to vote.

Aware of this, politicians have already begun peppering these individuals with their election pitches. In June, KFAB-AM in Omaha, Neb. — which just happens to border Iowa, the site of the first presidential caucus — ran 25 spots for Barack Obama, according to Dwight Douglas, vice president of marketing at Media Monitors, which tracks radio and newspaper advertising.

Targeting Specific Groups

Radio seems to be a favorite for Republican candidates. “There is a perception that talk radio tends to attract conservative listeners,” Halley told the E-Commerce Times. So, it is not surprising that Media Monitors found that Mitt Romney had run 955 radio spots by the end of June — and he wasn’t even the top backer. Rival Rudy Giuliani focused exclusively on using radio to make his pitch and had more than 1,000 airplays across the U.S.

In addition to reaching broad groups of potential voters, radio can help candidates target specific constituencies. In the spring, three Hispanic radio stations in Las Vegas ran a total of 26 spots for Democratic presidential Bill Richardson, who has a pro-immigrant platform. In June, KTLK-AM in Los Angeles ran five spots supporting a draft Al Gore (who has become a favorite son in Hollywood) for president initiative.

Despite the early activity, there are some downsides with radio advertising. This media outlet does not have as much clout as television does: a survey by the eVoter Institute found that eight out of ten political consultants viewed television as a best way to win an election while only three out of ten said the same for radio. Another problem is radio time tends to sell out quickly, which could prevent candidates engaged in campaigns where voter preferences change dramatically from day to day from using it to maintain newfound momentum.

Embracing Podcasting

Like television and newspapers, the radio industry is trying to figure out how to branch out and embrace the Internet. “There has been a synergy between traditional radio and Internet broadcasting,” Halley noted. Many radio stations have now embraced the idea of streaming their shows over the Internet and include links on their Web sites so listeners in remote locations can do just that.

Podcasting has quickly become quite popular. Because the candidates are trying to reach the young voters, many included podcasting as part of their media blitzes. This route also provides them with an easy-to-use avenue for getting their main points out. Radio stations are also trying to determine how they can use this outlet.

Digital radio is becoming more popular: It now has about 15 million users worldwide. Like cable television, one of its attractions is the broad number of channels it can support. In September, XM Satellite Radio plans to launch a new radio channel dedicated to the 2008 presidential election, the first time that has been done. The 24-hour, commercial-free channel will be called “POTUS ’08”, which stems from the Secret Service code name for the President of the United States.

An Important Role

“We think that the variety of candidates and issues in this election makes the idea of a channel dedicated solely to it appealing,” said David Butler, senior director of corporate affairs at XM. The presidential election channel, which will be available free to all subscribers, will feature news updates, candidate interviews, speeches, debate coverage, live call-in shows and podcasts. The channel will provide free airtime for presidential candidates to speak to voters, and some of the content will come from partners, such as C-SPAN.

While no one knows who the winner will be in the next presidential election, it does seem clear that even though radio is changing, it will play an important role in the that process.

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