Record political advertising testing some broadcaster’s limits

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(Host) If you’re interested in peeking under the hood of a political campaign, go to the Federal Elections Commission’s Website and scroll through a candidate’s campaign filings.

From among the hundreds of pages of disbursements for gasoline, pizza and campaign workers’ salaries, one expense will jump out: The cost of advertising.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, political advertising is at record levels this year, and it’s testing the limits of some broadcasters.

(Montage of political ads)

(Zind) You’d have to close your eyes, plug your ears and never visit your mailbox to avoid the barrage of advertising in this year’s campaigns.

Karen Marshall is outgoing Vice President of the 15 Vermont stations owned by Clear Channel Radio. Her message to their listeners is:

(Marshall) “You know what? November 7th is coming and you’ll be back to hearing all of those great local clients that we have on the air.”

(Zind) Like other broadcasters, Marshall’s radio stations have had to move regular advertisers out of available spots to make room for political ads. By law, broadcasters have to offer equal advertising opportunities to candidates for federal office. Marshall says at her stations this year, revenue from political advertising us up about 10% over two years ago.

Many commercial radio stations limit the number of ads a single advertiser can buy to one or two commercials per hour. That means there’s only so much advertising a candidate can purchase.

Because they charge a lot more for ads, and they’re willing to run more candidates’ ads, television stations are the biggest beneficiaries of campaign advertising.

Clear Channel’s Marshall says total political advertising on her company’s five Burlington radio stations is in the neighborhood of $200,000 dollars.

On one Burlington television station alone, WCAX, more than $2 million has been spent in just the U.S. Senate race, and far and away the biggest spenders this year are the two leading candidates for U.S. Senate: Bernie Sanders and Rich Tarrant.

Peter Martin is WCAX general manager.

(Martin) “I think it’s fair to say that this year, in terms of political spending, it has been the perfect storm. I don’t think anybody has ever seen political spending on this level in this state.”

(Zind) Martin says the combination of an open Senate seat and the battle for control of Congress has led to record spending this year.

The cost of TV ads varies with the time of day and the viewership of a program. Political ads on WCAX can run from $35 to well over $2000 each.

(WCAX announcer) “From Vermont’s most watched news station, this is the Channel 3 news “

(Zind) One of the most popular air times for campaign advertising is at either end of the local evening news.

Martin says this year the demand for those times has been so great that WCAX has actually shortened its newscast.

(Martin) “We start the news a little later and we end it a little earlier so that we can create slots for candidates.”

(Zind) And for the first time, WCAX is airing political spots in the one hour evening news block, during the sports segment.

(Martin) “It was the least unacceptable solution that we could think of. And it didn’t’ come easily.”

(Zind) Martin says the money nice, but broadcasters are required to provide reasonable access to candidates who want to advertise. He says the definition of what is reasonable changes with the demand for airtime.

At one point Tarrant and Sanders each inquired about buying half hour ads on WCAX, and Martin says the station would have obliged.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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