Longtime country radio host Blair Garner knows that listeners tune into his show for the music and celebrity guests, so after he booked an interview with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg last week, he sent a letter in advance to his affiliate stations.
“It is not, in any way shape or form, my intention for our show to become political,” wrote Garner, who was surprised when campaign staff reached out to him with an interview request while Buttigieg was in Nashville for a fundraiser. “But because someone clearly saw the value of our listeners, I felt secure in affording him this opportunity.”
Garner, who has worked in country radio for three decades, was well aware that politics is a sensitive issue for many listeners — particularly in the country music industry, where the strategy is typically to stay as apolitical as possible. He further wrote that Buttigieg would be two short segments in the first hour of the show and that the full audio would be online. And if stations preferred not to air any of it, his producers would provide alternate programming for those breaks.
Yet those precautions were soon moot. A couple days after the South Bend, Ind., mayor appeared in the studio for a wide-ranging interview, Garner heard from his bosses at his parent company, Cumulus Media: The segments were being cut completely from his show. They granted him permission to post the full interview on his SoundCloud account, but it was not allowed on the radio.
Disappointed, Garner took to social media Friday and linked to the 20-minute interview. “I was proud of it. But in the end, I was told that I couldn’t air it,” he wrote in a long Facebook post. “Again, I would have GLADLY welcomed any other viable candidates to be a guest, especially President Trump. To my thinking, the best way to a reasoned, thoughtful position on any topic, is to hear from both sides. Regardless, the interview was killed.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, a representative for Cumulus Media said the company decided not to air the interview because it is a broadcaster subject to the FCC’s “equal time rule,” where stations and networks have to offer airtime to all candidates.
"Cumulus Nashville's programming managers made the decision not to air Blair Garner's pre-recorded interview with Mayor Pete Buttigieg because of the large number of political candidates currently in this race,” the statement read. “The decision was made by local programming management based solely on concerns related to the application of the FCC’s Equal Time Rule. The effects of the FCC’s Equal Time Rule are widely understood and considered whenever these types of issues arise.”
Media lawyers say there are exceptions to the equal opportunity rule, such as if a conversation is considered a “bonafide news interview.” However, a Cumulus spokeswoman said, “When local programming managers saw the memo that Blair sent to his station affiliates about the interview, they alerted Blair of related issues with the FCC’s Equal Time Rule and contacted the company’s FCC attorney to clarify the rule, at which point the decision was made not to run the interview based on that counsel.”
So far, Buttigieg is the only candidate who has requested an interview with “The Blair Garner Show,” which reaches about 200 cities, Garner told The Post in an interview. Even though he felt “a bit of trepidation” in posting the entire story on social media, he felt it was important to give the full context to his audience.
“It really was just a heartfelt message from me to listeners of our program and anyone who may have stumbled across the interview,” said Garner, adding that he has a great working relationship with Cumulus, where he has been for many years. Still, he wishes his conversation with Buttigieg could have aired.
The two segments that would have aired on the radio included Buttigieg talking about running into Tim McGraw and Brad Paisley (Buttigieg briefly thought his name was “Fred”) and a conversation about civility among Democrats and Republicans. Much of the interview focused on respect in politics and the culture; Garner said he has received many positive comments from people on all sides of the political spectrum since posting the interview online.
“I think there is a genuine thirst, a desire for people to look for optimism, to look for hope . . . not anything about trashing one side or the other,” said Garner, who has seen an unusual high-level engagement with the SoundCloud link on social media. “I think it speaks to the merit of the interview and also his message.”
The two briefly referenced Trump, particularly during a long discussion about faith. Garner said he thinks religious voters have been “kind of hoodwinked into voting for a candidate who says but doesn’t necessarily back it up.” Buttigieg said people guided by faith “need to know they have a choice, and it’s just not true that their only choice is to come on board with the cruelty of the current administration.” The Indiana politician also spoke about how “politics is personal, and I think we need to get back to that.”
“I’m also somebody who knows what it means to have your life shaped by the decisions made by politicians,” Buttigieg said, noting he was deployed to war because of a president’s directive, his family has been affected by U.S. health-care policy, and he is “in a marriage that only exists by the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
While Buttigieg made history as the first candidate in a same-sex marriage to run for president, and Garner has spoken about the challenges of coming out in a genre considered largely conservative, the radio host said the topic never came up during discussions about the interview or during their conversation.
“I feel we are not defined by that aspect of our lives; he’s a politician who happens to be gay, I’m a country radio host who happens to be gay,” Garner said. “The best of my ability to encourage understanding is to show how I, as a gay man, am in a wonderful marriage with 15-year-old twins, and have the same challenges of any other couple in America today.”
Meanwhile, the Buttigieg campaign also expressed disappointment that the interview won’t air on the radio.
“It’s important to Pete to reach voters everywhere, and we’ve made it a point on this campaign to go outside the traditional political media bubble — that’s why we reached out to Blair about an interview. He has a big audience, and it’s an audience that doesn’t typically hear directly from Democratic candidates for president,” said Lis Smith, Buttigieg’s senior communications adviser. “It was a great discussion, and we are obviously disappointed that Blair’s listeners won’t have the opportunity to hear it.”