WASHINGTON – Several Maryland congressional challengers have decided to follow Democrat Terry Lierman’s lead and take advantage of a federal law that requires public broadcast stations to air their campaign advertisements for free.
A provision of the Federal Communications Act of 1972 requires all broadcast stations to provide candidates for federal office with “reasonable access” to the airwaves, and it requires noncommercial stations to run the ads free of charge.
Lierman, who is looking to unseat 8th District Rep. Connie Morella, R- Bethesda, discovered the provision this summer after a campaign supporter heard a presidential ad on WAMU in Washington, D.C., and looked into why it ran on public radio. Lora Bodmer, Lierman’s deputy campaign manager, said the campaign decided to take advantage of the law as a “creative way to reach voters.”
Public broadcasters around the state said there has been little demand for such ads so far, but that if congressional candidates ask for the time they will have to provide it.
“Rules are what they are,” said Jeff Hankin, vice president of marketing for Maryland Public Television.
Some congressional challengers in Maryland said they are ready to take advantage of those rules, after news of Lierman’s ad broke Wednesday.
“I believed it existed, but I just didn’t realize it was really there,” said 4th District Republican nominee John Kimble of the reasonable access law. “I’ll be just as bad as Lierman and go ahead and jump on it.”
Kimble said he wants his ads to run every day.
Other challengers said they were surprised by the law, but planned to consider it.
“I’ve never seen commercials on public television only debates. But, I’ll check into it,” said Kenneth Bosley, the Democrat running in the 2nd District against Rep. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium.
Not all challengers were considering public airtime. A spokesman for Tim Hutchins, the GOP nominee in the 5th District, said it would be “a bad move politically.”
Ehrlich and Morella said they will not run any ads on public television or radio, despite what their opponents might do. Ehrlich’s campaign manager said running such ads would be “an inappropriate intrusion into a non-profit institution.”
“I was always under the impression that non-profits and public radio were shielded from partisan politics and frankly I think it should be,” said Paul Schurick, the campaign manager.
Candidates typically avoid using public airtime, in respect for listeners who expect public stations to be commercial-free, said Fred Marino, general manager of Salisbury’s WSCL.
“When they call and we say `Yes, of course you can have time,’ we usually let them know it is a noncommercial station. And then many of them change their minds because they know — or we think they know — a lot of listeners will be upset,” he said.
If his station is flooded with requests, Marino said he will negotiate time with the candidates. He said the station already devotes half-hour programs for candidates to answer listeners’ questions, which he said is much better than “a 30-second commercial.”
“Large amounts of time could be damaging to a station,” Marino said.
But most stations do not expect a stampede of candidates demanding airtime.
Mary Stewart, vice president of communications for WETA, said the TV station has only had to run one political ad this year — for presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche Jr. But if requests grow, Stewart said that the station will “honor all of those.”
Federal Communications Commission spokesman David Fiske said the definition of reasonable access “depends on the circumstances of any given case.” He said he was not aware of any specific time limit spelled out in the law.
Fiske did say that a station could lose its license for refusing to comply with the law.
Susan Clampitt, WAMU’s executive director and general manager, said that while many listeners were unhappy with Lierman’s commercial, they were sympathetic to the station’s position.
“They were understanding of the bind WAMU was in and that our hands were tied by the FCC,” Clampitt said.