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Commentary: No, partisan local talk shows don't influence elections

Scott Hennen takes calls Monday, June 25, on his morning radio program from the 1100 AM studios at at 3301 University Dr. S. in Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO—The peak of local media narcissism occurred about 15 years ago, when it was reported that the Democratic-NPL Party was recruiting a talk-radio host of some note (red hair, went national, now works for the Russians) to run for North Dakota governor against the immensely popular John Hoeven. Whether the host was seriously being recruited and whether he was interested—as opposed to using the attention to promote his radio show to increase ratings—remains publicly unknown.

But, as the story goes, the host commissioned a poll to gauge Hoeven's popularity with a grand endgame in mind. Information in hand, the host would rail against the governor, accusing Hoeven of being an "empty suit" and hammer him for caving to fee-hunting interests in the so-called "Pheasantgate" controversy, with the idea of driving down the approval numbers. The railing went on for weeks.

When it came time for the host's effectiveness to be known, he commissioned another poll. Just one problem: When the results came in, Hoeven's numbers did not move. He was as popular as ever. He remained governor by winning re-election in 2004, beating his Democratic opponent (who was not the radio host) 71 percent to 28 percent. He was elected governor again in 2008 and has won two U.S. Senate races. He's garnered more than 70 percent of the vote in every race.

Lesson: For all of the bluster of talk-radio hosts (present company included, since I host a morning show on 970 WDAY), we should never believe we have influence over the electorate. We are commentators, informers, entertainers, solillaquists, pitchmen, comedians, jerks and even companions to those who listen.

But if the most bombastic and popular radio host in state history had exactly zero influence on Hoeven's political career despite weeks of targeted criticism, what power do the rest of us have? None, as I've always believed and said regularly on the air.

That has not stopped some in the profession from believing otherwise, if a Forum News Service story about talk-radio and the ongoing North Dakota political campaigns is any indication. One Fargo-based host, conservative Scott Hennen, believes talk-radio "absolutely" moves the needle on political topics.

Now, one must take into account the self-promoting and self-important nature of some in radio while mulling that assessment. And one must concede very few are going to downplay the impact of their own industry. However, one should ask a very obvious question in this specific instance.

How can somebody move the needle when virtually nobody is listening to them?

That would seem to be the case in Fargo-Moorhead with Hennen, whose 9-11 a.m. show on WZFG-AM garnered a 0.9 ratings share locally in the most recent ratings book available, according to sources.

What does that mean? It means that less than 1 percent of all radios being used in Cass and Clay counties from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. are tuned to Hennen. That translates to an average of 300-400 people listening at any one time. Maybe a total of 2,000 different people a week. In a "metro" area of about 200,000 people.

Moving the needle, indeed.

To be fair, Hennen's show is carried by Bismarck blowtorch KFYR-AM and it has a good listenership there. It's also broadcast by stations in Dickinson and Tioga. But if Hennen believes he is influencing listeners in Cass County, ground zero for the U.S. Senate race between Republican Kevin Cramer (whom Hennen supports) and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, it is a small group of people.

Disclaimer: WDAY no longer purchases the radio ratings from Nielsen Audio, the company that does twice-yearly ratings surveys, so I have no idea what my ratings are from 9 a.m.-noon. My sources didn't provide those numbers, but I will make them public if somebody in the business wants to share. I suspect that among the four radio talkers profiled in the Forum News Service article, I rank behind KFGO's Joel Heitkamp and ahead of WDAY's Rob Port and Hennen.

That's not the point anyway. The point is the extent to which talk-radio moves the needle in political season. I'll stick to what I told Forum News Service writer John Hageman: Fact-based reporting on the candidates or issues far outweighs opinion flame-throwing in importance. The prime example is North Dakota secretary of state candidate Will Gardner, who dropped out of the race after it was reported that he was caught window-peeping years ago.

It was the fact Gardner had a creepy criminal record that influenced the race, not the commentary that accompanied it.

It takes a certain chutzpah to be a talk-radio host, no doubt. But the chutzpah should end at the idea of impacting ballot boxes. That lesson was learned long ago by the most blustery local talk-show host of all.

Mike McFeely
Mike McFeely is a WDAY (970 AM) radio host and a columnist for The Forum. You can respond to Mike's columns by listening to AM-970 from 8:30-11 a.m. weekdays.
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