Radio gaga

Published on July 17, 2014

So, just how embarrassed do you have to be when even the academics are taking note of your efforts to tamper with the political process?

Two political science professors — the University of Ottawa’s Matthew Kerby and Memorial University’s Alex Marland — posted a paper Tuesday night that’s been accepted for publication in the journal Political Communication. The topic? How politicians in this province, particularly governing politicians, use political talk radio and poll-stacking to try to influence voters.

The researchers broke down three years of call-in logs to VOCM’s talk-radio shows, logs that indicated the real or false names used and details of the topics involved. They also looked at polls stacked by the governing Tories.

“We draw attention to two clandestine media management techniques. First, we demonstrate a case of call-ins from elected legislators to talk radio that were timed to coincide with the known field dates of a public opinion polling company and which are conditioned by biographical and institutional factors. Second, we report that handheld communication devices were used by senior members of the governing party to mobilize legislators and party personnel to repeatedly vote on straw polls on regional media websites.”

And, given a station’s need to fill hours of talk radio, it’s not surprising how straightforward grabbing that airtime might be.

“What is also not well understood is the relative ease with which local media as purveyors of public opinion are manipulated by political elites. Airtime on a national radio program is precious, leading to short interactions and difficulty for callers to get through,” the study points out. “The reverse is true on local news talk stations, providing ample opportunity to flood the airwaves in a co-ordinated manner.

“What sets VOCM talk radio apart is the abundance of calls from elected officials in the listening area. Government elites are reputed to initiate so many calls that the station’s name has been dubbed an acronym for ‘Voice of the Cabinet Minister’ among local journalists,” the study says.

“Planned call-ins from politicians are scheduled during what the governing party has deemed to be the best time periods to influence public opinion. … Newfoundland political elites’ participation in local political talk radio is, according to (one) model, rational because of the self-interested pursuit of personal gains. But there is divergence because the complicity of 590 VOCM-AM is a throwback to the passive observer role normally associated with journalism pre-Watergate.”

And it’s gone on for years: “The degree to which the government of Premier Danny Williams (2003-2010) managed talk radio in an expert and strategic manner was a component of an impressive, but worrying, campaign of information control. This included alleged efforts to flood regional media, in particular VOCM, with good news about the government during known ‘polling periods’ when an omnibus opinion survey was being administered by Halifax-based Corporate Research Associates Inc. every three months.”

You are what you eat. Perhaps it’s not unfair to suggest you think what you hear — or, at least, what you think is influenced by what you hear. Perhaps it’s not startling — but it sure is disappointing.