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It seemed like a good idea at that time.

With the 1994 elections still some distance away, it's a time for many of us to catch our breath. But for me it's a time to think of grand issues--like public service and its cost in legal fees.

The election adventure I'm about to relate is mostly Dave Kanzeg's doing, although I'm the one responsible for bringing lawyers into it. Dave and I are program directors at National Public Radio affiliates. He's at WCPN in Cleveland, while I'm with WDUQ in Pittsburgh. Two summers ago we were kicking around unusual programming ideas when the subject of election coverage came up. Dave wondered what would happen if his station offered free and unrestricted air time to political candidates, letting them state their cases entirely on their own terms without any station interference.

To nearly every program director on earth this concept is utter heresy. No conventional program director voluntarily gives up control of the station's air time, especially to politicians.

In this case, we weren't conventional. Between August 1991 and July 1992, we traded arcane legal documents and philosophical ideas about free time. Dave was braver than I, sending invites to on-the-ballot candidates for several congressional races in Northeast Ohio, as well as for judgeships, president and vice president. I only invited candidates in two U.S. House races and the Senate race for Republican Arlen Specter's seat.

That's when Litigant entered our lives. (His name is actually William White, but everyone at WDUQ calls him Litigant.) He's a former Goddard Space Center employee living at home with his parents, and he had some strong feelings about the current political system and how it overlooked many like him. Those feelings led him to enter the 1991 race for U.S. Senate, which was won by Democrat Harris Wofford. My news director, Kevin Gavin, was fielding requests from politicians for air time, and he turned down Litigant's bid. He didn't think Litigant met the standards for a legally qualified candidate spelled out in the Communications Act of 1934.

A bona fide candidate is someone who has met the legal qualifications to hold the federal office in question; has publicly announced a candidacy (or filed papers for a spot on the ballot); and either qualifies to be on the ballot by virtue of party affiliation or through a write-in campaign--which requires other signs of campaign legitimacy, such as an official headquarters, speeches or interviews. Candidates meeting these standards are entitled to ask radio and television stations for what the act calls "reasonable access" to air time. When they come calling, you must respond formally, and if you deny them access you had better have a very good--and legal--reason.

By these standards, Kevin's decision in 1991 was a good one. Litigant had no place on the ballot, no headquarters other than his home, no organization and no evidence of petition support. By the summer of 1992, however, I was determined to turn our free-access idea into station policy, and even though Litigant's persistent calls were annoying the news department, I was willing to hear him out.

To Kevin's dismay, I decided that our offer should include Litigant. I felt that Litigant's lack of money or major party status should not be a factor; part of what he was protesting, after all, was the very high set of hoops a prospective federal candidate has to jump through to get on the Pennsylvania ballot. He also seemed to be working very hard to be taken seriously.

As Art Spiegelman's father character said in "Maus II," "And here my troubles began."

It was late September, and Litigant wanted air time immediately--and a lot of it. His original request was for two-minute spots between each NPR newscast and our local newscast (16 spots, seven days a week); two five-minute spots a day; two 15-minute programs just before the election; a 30-minute call-in program every Friday through October; a one-hour interview each Saturday and Sunday until the election; a late-night one- or two-hour call-in program each week, and a two-hour-plus debate the week before the election.

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I asked him if he remembered the phrase "reasonable access" in the 1934 law, and wondered aloud what might happen if the three on-the-ballot candidates asked for equal time. "That's your problem," he said, reminding me there were no restrictions in our invitation.

Regardless, we weren't going to do anything to undermine our news policies or editorial decisions, so that killed the newscast-time spots. We also whittled everything else back substantially and ended up starting with a live daily broadcast each morning. Litigant was quite upset about the compromise and periodically upbraided me about my lack of courage.

His early broadcasts consisted of old material (probably from his 1991 Senate run). His first spot began with a recording from the opening of "The Outer Limits," the old sci-fi television series: "Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical...." It was his novel way of introducing his central theme: that the Democrats and Republicans are essentially one party, keeping everyone else out. In his second broadcast he blasted the local NBC-TV affiliate for refusing to cover his campaign.

Two weeks later we ran headlong into the Great Time of Trial for all public radio stations: the fund drive. All but one of the candidates agreed to wait for air time until after we wrapped up the drive, which started October 11. I'll give you one guess who the holdout was. After another round of negotiations, Litigant agreed to wait, but with the understanding that he would increase the number of spots after the drive.

This made Kevin and Judy Jankowski, our station manager, very nervous. It made them more so when they heard his next request: spots of two to five minutes every hour, every day from October 23 through the election.

Our misgivings about handing so much time over to Litigant were compounded by the fact that Specter's people never acknowledged our offer and his Democratic challenger, Lynn Yeakel, only requested a 30-minute phone interview. We began to debate dropping our offer of "unrestricted air time," if not dropping the entire project.

Fortunately, Judy realized that Litigant couldn't possibly meet the demands of producing hourly five-minute spots. So we told him he could have every spot he wanted, but he'd have to produce them without our help. Faced with the prospect of coming up with 125 five-minute spots per week, Litigant dropped his request to nine, two-minute spots per weekday.

Litigant's stands on issues began to emerge in these new spots. Some seemed mainstream liberal: He opposed NAFTA, thought George Bush knew all about the Iran-contra affair, and favored abortion rights, unlimited health and education benefits for veterans, a more efficient military, and cleaner air by reducing the use of fossil fuels.

But Litigant also claimed that Mexicans are paid with sacks of oranges, that "Red China" controls Vietnam and North Korea, and that at least one enterprising drug smuggler had more than three pounds of cocaine surgically implanted in her buttocks.

He also routinely attacked his opponents, calling Arlen Specter a "George Bush stooge" and Lynn Yeakel a "rich fat-cat." One afternoon he even attacked Kevin, who had kept him off the air the year before, as someone who was trying to silence him, censor him and destroy his campaign--and the American way of life in the process.

Listeners continued to call in, demanding to know what the hell we thought we were doing by letting some nut like Litigant on the air. One caller, a freelance public radio producer (and a Yeakel supporter), ripped me for disgracing our station by letting Litigant insult legitimate candidates.

These vehement protests worried us, so I asked listeners to call our comment line to let us know what they thought of the concept. The response was stunning: Calls ran about 11 to 1 in favor of the free-time experiment.

Litigant then asked us to produce a new series of spots for him. We declined. He then asked to replace his spots with a 60-minute call-in program on election eve, which we agreed to do. It actually stretched to 90 minutes because he finally stopped trying to anger listeners and simply discussed the issues, including abortion, gun control and campaign financing. It was the only time he sounded like a real candidate. Some callers said he'd won their votes, but we never got his totals. Pennsylvania doesn't tally write-in votes.

The election was over, but Litigant wasn't satisfied. He demanded air time on inauguration day to make up for two spots he missed earlier. We said no. Shortly after, he demanded to examine our program logs. At first we honored his request, but he came by daily and disrupted us, so we closed the logs after our lawyer assured us they weren't part of our public file.

That wasn't the last of Litigant. Last spring we received a copy of a complaint he filed with the Federal Election Commission. He claimed that we censored him by not covering his campaign and that our coverage of the Specter and Yeakel campaigns constituted a donation of our time and resources. In other words, he was asserting that all coverage of candidates is political in nature rather than journalistic, and hence subject to the equal time law. Evidently he had forgotten that the Communications Act exempts from equal time requirements news coverage done as part of a good faith effort to inform the community.

With this complaint, Litigant was not just biting the one hand that made a prolonged effort to feed him, he was trying to tear off our arm. Meanwhile, Litigant redefined chutzpah by writing to ask when he'd get his make-good spots and applying for a WDUQ news producer job. Our lawyer finally sent him a letter that, translated from legalese, said, "Buzz off." We haven't heard from Litigant since, but I have no doubt he'll be back in '94.

P.S. The FEC dismissed Litigant's complaint in June. We modified our free time offer during the Pittsburgh City Council and mayoral campaigns with great success, and praise from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Both WDUQ and our counterpart in Cleveland, WCPN, remain enthusiastic about the process--occasional legal messes notwithstanding--and are committed to opening our airwaves as a public service.

P.P.S. What happened in Cleveland? Dave Kanzeg's most eccentric candidate was a man who played piano on the air and introduced WCPN's listeners to his family, including his grandchildren. Some program directors have all the luck.
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Title Annotation:free air time for election candidates
Author:Becker, Dave
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:1766
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