Radio Governors Hitting the Airwaves to Reach Voters


It's 9 a.m. Friday and Minnesotans tuned to WCCO radio are topping off their cups of coffee with a dose of state politics.

"Good morning Minnesota ... We're glad you're listening," booms Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty as he opens his weekly call-in show. Minnesota's top state executive is one in a long line of governors who regularly hit the airwaves to connect with voters.

Politicians using the radio isn't new, but governors from Minnesota to Arkansas use it to interact with, rather than talk at, citizens. They take a step beyond the radio talks of past and present U.S. presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt's historic fire side chats' or George W. Bush's regular Saturday radio addresses.

Pawlenty's hour-long show is part politics, part entertainment. He fields questions from callers and banters with mystery celebrity guests, such as magician David Copperfield, who visited the Twin Cities last month. During one recent show, Bruce Springsteen's patriotic, post-Sept. 11 song, "The Rising," faded into the background as Pawlenty chatted up his co-host, an old law school buddy "Big Al Lanners," before launching into the "90-second drill," a brief roundup of important events under the Capitol dome that week.

Pawlenty went on to exchange views with callers about a proposal to put visa expiration dates on immigrants' drivers' licenses, but not before talking with a guest whom he called "the hottest woman in Minnesota" -- Pawlenty's wife Mary, a district court judge who plugged a new statewide volunteer program to help families of U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.

Pawlenty is making such a production of the broadcast his gubernatorial Web page even has an electronic suggestion box where listeners can comment and propose topics and guests for the weekly radio spots.

Pawlenty clearly enjoys his radio gig, as do other governors, and they take seriously the opportunity to speak directly with constituents.

"(Governors) do radio because they have to. It's their opportunity to perhaps go over the heads of television and newspaper reporters and reach people directly," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

It seems governors agree.

The opportunity to talk one-on-one with voters is "the great thing about this show," Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) told listeners across the state that tuned-in last week to the monthly "Ask Gov. Vilsack Show" on News Radio 1040 WHO in Des Moines. This reporter had the opportunity to question Vilsack at the top of his most recent hour-long show, but the moderator, state capitol reporter Richard Lee, made sure most questions came from non-journalists.

The program is billed as a "people's press conference" and Lee's six incoming phone lines filled with calls from people like "Ken from Mason City" and "Armando from Atlantic," Iowa. The callers asked Vilsack his opinion on everything from raising cigarette taxes to cuts in Medicaid payments to pharmacies.

Vilsack and Pawlenty are following a long tradition.

In the 1930s, former populist Louisiana Gov. Huey Long (D) was "somewhat notorious" for using radio to stir up resentment of liberal causes, said Michele Hilmes, a communications professor and historian at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jimmy Davis, a sometime songwriter who served two terms as Louisiana governor in the mid-1940s and early 1960s, used to warble his popular favorite "You Are My Sunshine" over the airwaves to woo the voters. And former Texas Gov. W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, elected in 1938 after gaining name recognition as the host of a radio "hillbilly" music show, used his fame to conduct an informal primary on which he built his race for the office. He had a radio-delivered campaign theme song called Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy,' Hilmes said.

But why radio today?

"Because it's the least expensive medium with the broadest reach," Hilmes said.

"Radio has always been a standard tool, way before the Internet. There are constituencies that you can reach with radio that you don't reach in other ways," said Christine LaPaille, director of public affairs at the National Governors Association.

Even with the Internet and new media public relations techniques like electronic newsletters and online chats, radio is an important medium, according to UVA's Sabato. In the past two decades governors have increasingly taken advantage of radio because local television stations rarely cover state politics and radio allows time to delve into complicated, "meaty" policy issues, he said.

"More governors are using radio. They're using radio because even governors have trouble getting on television," Sabato said. Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), "would have to announce his resignation to get something close to major television coverage," in the media-saturated Washington, D.C., market, he added.

Warner appears on several radio call-in shows each month, from stations in rural parts of the state to an hour-long spot the first Thursday of every month on WTOP, an all-news radio station in Washington, D.C.

Across the states:

  • Arkansas Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former communications executive who worked his way through high school and college announcing sports play-by-play for local radio stations, hosts a program on KARN in Little Rock the first Wednesday of every month. "He doesn't just listen to the caller's questions and then hang up. He can carry on a dialogue, which is the beauty of live radio," said Huckabee's communications director, Rex Nelson. 
  • Democratic California Gov. Gray Davis appears regularly to be interviewed on radio programs across the state, including stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, a press aide said. 
  • Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) appears on Maine Public Radio every three weeks for a constituent call-in program, said spokesman Lee Umphrey.
  • Connecticut Gov. John Rowland (R) doesn't host a show, but often calls in to two local radio stations WTIC and WDRC in Hartford to be interviewed, a press aide said.
  • Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry (D) has a regular radio program, but is questioned only by the host, not callers, said press secretary Kym Koch. The governor also participates in periodic online chats with KFOR in Oklahoma City.

Related Stories