Campaigns in Tune With an Old Medium

By Matthew Mosk and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 6, 2006

There's no question who was meant to hear the commercial that hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons cut for Republican Senate candidate Michael S. Steele.

"Michael Steele knows the issues that affect us because he comes from our struggle," Simmons says. "For too long, our voice has been ignored in Washington. Michael Steele could change that."

So how did Steele's campaign team know Simmons's message would reach an African American audience? They placed the ad on the radio.

"Politicians are using radio because it's a very focused, niche-programming medium," said Mark Fratrik, a radio analyst and vice president of Chantilly-based BIA Financial Network Inc. "These campaigns have specific messages for specific groups: soccer moms, NASCAR dads, African Americans. They gain that flexibility."

It may be the dowdy, older cousin of the slick, 30-second television spot, but the radio ad has become a second front for the hotly contested political campaigns in Maryland and Virginia this year.

Candidates in both states have turned to radio to sharpen their attacks on issues of race, on matters important to women and, increasingly this week, to help them spur turnout among key constituencies.

There was the rural Virginia radio ad going after Senate candidate James Webb (D) for failing to support a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The voice of a former Maryland teacher of the year surfaced on pop radio stations to defend the record of gubernatorial candidate Martin O'Malley (D) on education.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich (R) turned to rural markets to accuse O'Malley of raising taxes and coddling illegal immigrants and to urban radio to accuse the Baltimore mayor of sanctioning mass arrests of black men.

Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin has saturated key stations with the voices of black leaders, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who praises Cardin for lending early support for a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and for appointing the state legislature's first African American committee chairman.

"I've been around long enough to know when someone is really fighting for us ," Lewis declares.

Charlie Sislen, a radio industry analyst and partner at Annapolis-based Research Director Inc., said that it's too early to say just how much is being spent on radio this season but that it's a lot.

"It has been that way across the country," Sislen said. "It's hot and heavy."

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