In the middle of his trademark show, Paul Harvey will seamlessly slip away from the news and folksy anecdotes to pitch a product or service, such as Amway or Wells Lamont gloves.
For radio personalities like Harvey, Rush Limbaugh or Don Imus, pitching is a storied part of the job. Loyal listeners are usually loyal consumers, and a thumbs-up from a radio host is good advertising.
But what happens when reporters start doing the same? At local stations, there's no single standard and some of the definitions of conflict leave a lot of wiggle room to allow a station to get in an ad.
On all-news WTOP (1500 AM) or any other station served by Metro Networks news and traffic, for instance, Lisa Baden gives her usual well-reported, colorful traffic report, occasionally followed by a pitch for CLC Laser Eye Centers. Baden received free corrective laser eye surgery (a value of about $5,500) in exchange for the on-air plug.
Baden is a well-known radio personality and therefore a valuable pitchwoman. And even though her celebrity is due to Metro, the network says her endorsements are considered "outside work"--like a second job--and are not affiliated with Metro Networks. The company receives no cut from its employees' endorsements, says John Frawley, vice president of broadcast operations for Metro in Washington. Also, Metro reporters always inform management of outside work, he says, and the advertiser pays the radio station--not Metro--to broadcast the endorsements.
Metro allows its reporters for both traffic and news to do endorsements, Frawley says. Radio often distinguishes between traffic reporters and "news" reporters, who report on crime, government and business news.
Is there a potential for conflict of interest?
In Baden's case, there is little potential for conflict, unless, say, a truck runs into a laser clinic, causing a traffic tie-up. And none of the Metro news reporters do commercials in return for gifts, says John Irving, Metro's news chief. (Washington Post reporters are not allowed to accept gifts or give endorsements, either.)
The FCC has regulations on "plugola": All advertisements and endorsements must be recorded in a station's ad log. And it is illegal for a deejay to get a free meal, for instance, then recommend the restaurant on the air unless the restaurant buys ad time at the station. This at least offers some insurance to listeners that the endorsements they're hearing have been paid for.
For example, a WTOP commercial says: "WTOP reporters use Cellular One telephones."
Jim Farley, vice president of news at WTOP, told the station's sales staff he was interested in upgrading his reporters' phones. So they contacted Cellular One, which gave phones to WTOP reporters in exchange for the commercials. But Farley says even though WTOP sports reporters are allowed to make endorsements (sports guy Dave Johnson endorsed a bed company and got a new bed), news reporters are not.
"We have a separation of church and state," Farley says. And, in something of a fine distinction, he says that although WTOP news reporters read ads, they are allowed to omit copy that makes them "uncomfortable." And what if Cellular One is involved in a news story, possibly a negative one?
"Then we'll cover it like any news agency," Farley says. He adds that his sales staff tells him that the station has "missed several buys" because WTOP doesn't sell on-air endorsements.
"Our sales folks say they're at a disadvantage compared to a talk or music station because their jocks and hosts [make endorsements] all the time," Farley says.
At news/talk WMAL (630 AM), hosts--Brooke Stevens and Chris Core among them--receive one free meal at a restaurant in exchange for endorsing it on the air. But the station's reporters do not. They don't even read commercials on the air. And WMAL has not sought out the sort of phones-for-advertising deal that WTOP has.
"But that doesn't mean that we wouldn't," says John Butler, WMAL's operations director.
"This sort of thing is not a problem as long as it's properly policed," he says. "You have to deal with the issue responsibly and take a great deal of care. But, that said, I see nothing wrong per se with what's going on."
So, for now, the ground rules in local radio say that it's okay for traffic and sports reporters to make endorsements, but not news reporters. At least not yet: In radio and TV--as well as newspapers--the line between "reporter" and "personality" can easily blur, especially as a reporter rises in prominence.
What would happen if a Metro news reporter were approached to do an endorsement for a local company that is routinely in the news, such as Geico?
"I can't answer that because it hasn't come up," says Metro's Frawley. "We would look at something like that on a case-by-case basis."
* DC-101 (WWDC) has hired a new morning host to replace Dave Zyck, who was fired in September. The new guy, Elliot Segal, is half of "Elvis and Elliot," the morning team at New York's Top 40 WHTZ, and had sought to break out on his own. He will begin Aug. 16 in the morning-drive slot, 6-10 a.m. In New York, the team helped take WHTZ--which was mired deep in the ratings--to consistent Top 10 finishes in the quarterly Arbitrons.
Segal is a high-volume shock jock who has claimed that, if he had his own show, he could beat reigning morning man Howard Stern, who--along with WHUR's Tom Joyner--rules the ratings in Washington. A New York personality in his own right, Segal, 30, has dated Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." WHTZ and WWDC are both owned by Chancellor Media Corp. DC-101 has cultivated morning shock jocks--Stern got his start there, and was followed by Doug "Greaseman" Tracht. Buddy Rizer, who had been hosting DC-101's morning show, will maintain an on-air presence elsewhere in the schedule, the station said.
* Top 40 Z-104 (WWZZ) continues to aggressively target Spanish-speaking listeners in a recent bilingual direct-mail campaign. "If you like dance music, you'll love the new Z-104!" read the postcards, which have been mailed to more than 35,000 Washington-area households. The mailing list was based partially on Spanish surnames, says Sammy Smith, the station's marketing and promotions director. Half of the card touts the station's dance music programs in English, the other half in Spanish. Over the past year, four new Spanish-speaking stations have debuted on the AM dial; there are none on FM. Though Z-104 broadcasts in English, the station had the highest percentage of Hispanic listeners of any FM station in the most recent Arbitron ratings.
Listen to ThisAt 7:30 p.m. Friday, WETA's broadcast of "Performance Today" (90.9) will include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's eighth annual "Live, Gifted and Black" concert. This presentation will be devoted to the works of black composer Adolphus Hailstork, a Norfolk State University professor of music.