When Jeremy Lansman put community radio station KDNA on the air in St. Louis four decades ago, he opened the airwaves to political points of view never before aired in the Midwest.
Lansman now owns a commercial television station, KYES, in A
nchorage, Alaska, and continues to look for ways to open up the airwaves. On July 17, he announced that KYES would devote 10 percent of the time normally devoted to commercials to free, 30-second political messages. Any candidate registered with the State Division of Elections in Alaska would have equal access.
“It’s a dangerous truth that most candidates for public office these days can’t afford to let the public know what they stand for,” Lansman said in a written statement announcing the policy. “The recent Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision has given large corporations more freedom of speech than the rest of us. Channel 5 hopes to help correct this imbalance.”
By the August 28 primary election, 21 candidates had taken advantage of the free time, among them state Sen. Bill Wielechowski, a Democrat from Anchorage.
“It’s free media,” Wielechowski said in a telephone interview. “Who can turn that down?”
His opponent in the general election in a newly redrawn district, former state Rep. Bob Roses, could.
“I did not participate in the offer, “ Roses wrote in an email. “I thought it a nice gesture, but their viewership is so low that it was likely to have little impact.”
Low ratings or not, Wielechowski said he heard from voters who saw his political messages.
“I think there’s too much money in politics, and anything you can do to get this down is great,” Wielechowski said.
Even with low ratings, a handful of votes can determine the outcome of a low-turnout primary. For example, in Alaska’s 17th House district Democratic primary in Anchorage, Geran Tarr defeated Cal Williams by 120 votes out of 1,080 cast. Both used the free time on KYES.
Here’s how the system works: Candidates make a video or pay KYES staff to make it for them. Once it is submitted and KYES has made sure it meets technical standards, it goes into a rotation with the other candidate’s messages. If five candidates submit messages, each candidate gets one-fifth of the 10 percent of commercial time, and the five candidates’ messages run in the same order. If 30 candidates submit messages, each one gets one-30th. In most broadcast hours, two candidates’ videos get aired.
Some of the candidates’ spots posted on YouTube are short on substance. Lynn Gattis, who successfully ran for the Republican nomination for the state House from Wasilla, had a spot that said, “I get things done,” without saying what those things are.
Standing in front of a rushing mountain stream with two large black dogs, Republican Jon R. Cox denounced 20-term Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young for endorsing an unnamed Hawaii Democrat.
“Let’s restore our pride, dignity and conservative values,” Cox said.
Young won the primary with nearly 79 percent of the vote. Young did not use the free time on KYES.
In contrast, incumbent Democratic state Sen. Johnny Ellis said in his message: “Republicans and Democrats working together is not the problem, it is the solution.”
Ellis, a member of that Alaska Senate’s Bipartisan Working Group, added that he wants “to see more oil in that pipeline. And I would never sell Alaska by giving away our oil.”
Jodie Dominguez was one of the first to send in a message, although she ran unopposed in the Democratic primary for a state House seat from Anchorage. Dominguez, who was running against two-term Republican incumbent Craig Johnson, wrote an email that said: “We found it very helpful for a lower budget campaign running against a campaign with much more funding.”
She added: “It allowed us to have the opportunity to let our voters know who is running for office in their neighborhood.”
No presidential candidate has sent in a message, and Alaska has no Senate seat in play this year.
“I wish more stations had done this,” Wielechowski said.
Benjamin Israel is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. He worked for Jeremy Lansman at KDNA-FM in St. Louis from 1970 until it went off the air in 1973.