Want to know what Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich is thinking? Just listen:
The difference between Virginia's budget situation and Maryland's? "They have a huge surplus because they passed taxes when they didn't need to," Ehrlich said last month.
The controversy over an Ehrlich fundraiser held at a Baltimore golf club that has no black members? "All a bunch of nothing," he declared on July 5.
His feelings about stem cell research? "I support stem cell research, including embryonic stem cell research," he stated in April as the General Assembly was considering whether to allow state funding of it.
Ehrlich didn't make those pronouncements in a news release, press conference or newspaper interview. Instead, each time the venue was the same: the radio call-in programs on WBAL (1090 AM), Baltimore's powerful -- and generally conservative -- news-and-talk station. When the governor has something to say, chances are he'll say it on Chip Franklin's morning program or Ron Smith's afternoon drive-time show on the station. Or maybe he'll save it for his biweekly "Stateline With Governor Ehrlich," a live, one-hour program that airs on WBAL on Saturday mornings.
Ehrlich used to pop up on WBAL from time to time when he was a Baltimore area congressman. But since taking office in Annapolis in 2003, the Republican governor has practically become a fixture at the station. How often has he been on? "Way into the hundreds of times" is the best guess of his chief spokesman, Paul E. Schurick.
In fact, the frequent studio appearances and phone-ins (for better sound quality, Ehrlich uses a special WBAL hookup in the State House) are part of his unusual media strategy. It's fair to say that Ehrlich regards traditional news outlets the way a possum regards a skunk. Although he talks to reporters irregularly, both he and his wife, Kendel Ehrlich, have been harshly critical of newspaper coverage of his administration.
Ehrlich deemed the Baltimore Sun's reporting so unfair that in November he banned state employees from talking to the Sun's top political writer and one of its columnists. In 2003, he briefly stopped talking to a Washington Post reporter assigned to cover him. The newspaper's relationship with Ehrlich "has been smooth at times, rocky at others," says R.B. Brenner, The Post's Maryland editor.
Talk radio, on the other hand, enables Ehrlich to bypass reporters and take his message straight to The People, or at least the people who listen to WBAL and a few other talk stations he favors in the state. That those people tend to be the kind who already support Ehrlich -- talk radio generally attracts conservative listeners -- is all part of the plan.
"Talk radio is direct, immediate and unfiltered," says Schurick, who devised Ehrlich's media strategy. "The governor gets to talk directly with members of the public. . . . The other extreme is the print media, where there are three or four people whose judgment is part of the reporting. We could disagree about whether that's good or bad, but we'd certainly agree that talk radio is more immediate."
Of course it's also a medium in which a politician's statements can fly by without the sort of fact-checking, follow-up questioning and contrary opinions that news reporting provides. That, too, some suspect, is part of the plan. When, for example, Ehrlich said recently on WBAL that he "turned around" Maryland's budget deficit, no one bothered to point out that Ehrlich's plans to raise money with slot machines failed or that other factors -- an improving economy, initiatives by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly -- might have had something to do with the turnaround, too.
This, of course, drives Ehrlich's opponents crazy.
"WBAL has given him almost carte blanche since he became governor," fumes Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). "There are issues of fundamental fairness involved here. . . . It's a very biased, very partisan station that accepts material from the sewer and broadcasts it as if it were factual."
Says House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel): "The unfortunate thing with that medium is that they can make up their own set of facts anytime they want. It's not a dialogue. . . . It seems pretty slanted, and the governor is using it to his advantage."
Democrats are quick to point out the unusually close connections between WBAL's hosts and Ehrlich's government. Chip Franklin, the station's morning man, has appeared in commercials for the Maryland State Lottery, an agency whose director and board are appointed by the governor. And the wife of afternoon drive-time host Ron Smith was hired last year by the State Department of Juvenile Services as a $79,771-a-year public relations officer. Derek Walker, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, calls WBAL "a wholly owned subsidiary of the Ehrlich administration."
WBAL General Manager Jeff Beauchamp says the criticism is unfair. He notes that the station gave ample airtime to Ehrlich's Democratic predecessors, William Donald Schaefer and Parris Glendening. He defends Franklin, saying that his contracts with the state predate Ehrlich's election and that the station saw no conflict in his roles as host and pitchman since Franklin engages in opinion, not news reporting. As for Smith, Beauchamp said WBAL removed him as host of "Stateline With Governor Ehrlich" to avoid the appearance of a conflict after the hiring of his wife.
Beauchamp also disputed the notion that Ehrlich gets an easy ride from his station. "It's a two-way street," he says. "The fact is, while the governor has access to the station, he doesn't have unfettered access. We'll ask him questions he's not pleased with, and so will the callers. There are no ground rules. If anything, it's better when he disagrees [with them]. We like disagreement. It's more interesting and makes better talk radio."
In many ways, Ehrlich and WBAL were made for each other. The station, owned by the Hearst Corp., is a 50,000-watt behemoth whose signal reaches not just Maryland's most populous city and suburbs but across almost the entire state, giving Ehrlich a powerful megaphone. While WBAL's daily audience isn't huge -- it averages about 40,000 listeners during afternoon drive-time hours, according to the station, or less than one-seventh the daily circulation of the Sun or The Post in Maryland -- it does attract people a politician would love. Talk-show listeners are engaged and tend to vote in higher numbers than the general population.
Further, depending on the time of day, WBAL is either the first- or second-ranked station in the Baltimore area among hard-to-reach adult males -- Ehrlich's base. As Beauchamp puts it, "Our listeners are suburban, affluent and conservative."
Meanwhile, the relationship not only gives WBAL access to the state's biggest newsmaker but also provides a secondary publicity effect as well: Ehrlich's comments on WBAL are regularly picked up by other media outlets (including The Post) with WBAL credited as the source. Indeed, David Nitkin, the Sun political writer who has been banned by Ehrlich, says: "We have to continually monitor the governor and other administration officials on WBAL. They seem to prefer to go on that station, and leak information to them that it doesn't give to other news outlets. It's very frustrating."
From Ehrlich's perspective, there are additional bonuses. First, WBAL broadcasts in the back yard of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who often is discussed derisively by the station's hosts. This could help Ehrlich if O'Malley becomes his Democratic opponent in the governor's race next year. Democrats suggest the fix is already in at WBAL against O'Malley; in May, for example, O'Malley accused unnamed Ehrlich operatives of feeding WBAL reporters material to keep alive unfounded rumors that O'Malley had had an extramarital affair. (Ehrlich has disclaimed any involvement.)
WBAL seems to have picked the same fight with the Baltimore Sun that Ehrlich has, creating a three-way crossfire that gives Ehrlich an ally in his efforts to isolate the paper. Smith and Franklin have been so critical of the paper's news coverage and editorial views that, in retaliation, Sun Executive Editor Timothy Franklin last month banned reporters and columnists from speaking on WBAL's talk shows (although the two organizations still draw on each other's resources for news reports).
"It's apparent and obvious that this is an orchestrated jihad by the talk-show hosts against the paper," says the Sun's Franklin (who is not related to WBAL's Chip Franklin). "I don't care what they say about me, and they've called me Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin. But what I do care about is that they are consistently attacking the credibility of this institution. That's a bigger issue."
Beauchamp says that's a two-way street, too. The Sun's columnists, he points out, have been equally harsh in their treatment of Smith and Chip Franklin. "Our response is, we can take a punch. Why can't they?"
Can any of this really be good for Bob Ehrlich? Political observers are divided about that.
Richard Vatz, a professor of rhetoric and communications at Towson University who knows Ehrlich and is also a regular commentator on WBAL, says the governor has energized conservative Republicans by taking on the Sun and speaking out on WBAL. "I think he believes, and the 2002 [gubernatorial] election demonstrated this, that he can circumvent the hostile elements in the print media -- not all the print media, but the hostile ones," says Vatz. "This is all part of getting out your base."
Well, yes, agrees Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. But he points out that Ehrlich's base is relatively small in a state in which Democrats enjoy a nearly 2 to 1 advantage among registered voters. "It's all probably annoying just as many Democrats as it's energizing Republicans," he says.
Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich at a news conference last year. He more often does his talking on generally conservative WBAL radio in Baltimore.