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'It isn't about advocacy for one candidate': Talk radio figures into ND Senate race

Scott Hennen takes calls Monday, June 25, on his morning radio program from the 1100 AM studios at at 3301 University Dr. S. in Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service1 / 4
In this 2017 file photo, Rob Port sits at the desk from which he hosts his radio broadcasts. Sam Easter / Forum News Service2 / 4
Mike McFeely3 / 4
Joel Heitkamp. Submitted photo4 / 4

BISMARCK — When Rep. Kevin Cramer reversed course and decided to run for the U.S. Senate this year, he turned to longtime North Dakota talk radio host Scott Hennen to emcee his campaign announcement.

And in Sen. Heidi Heitkamp's first ad of the campaign season, her brother and talk radio host Joel Heitkamp, a fellow Democrat, described her sister as a "great senator." During one of her frequent appearances on Joel's show, she announced her bid for a second term in the U.S. Senate.

Political preferences are nothing new in talk radio, but hosts like Hennen and Heitkamp are playing a public role in one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country. And one expert said their voices could help influence the contest.

Brian Rosenwald, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said talk radio is "part of the fabric of the culture" in rural states where many people are in front of radios in a truck or tractor during the day.

"In a place like that, there's a friendship between listeners and their favorite hosts. There's a bond," he said. "To them, this is their buddy who they spend all these hours with a week who's telling them about this race."

Also in the mix are Rob Port and Mike McFeely, hosts who each represent differing ideological views on Forum Communications Co.-owned WDAY.

Radio's reach remains high. According to the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of Americans ages 12 and older listened to AM/FM radio in a given week in 2016, with news, talk and information being the top format.

Hennen said talk radio "absolutely" moves the needle on political issues, given the nature of its audience.

"These people the most engaged, very often influential, they want to stay on top of what's happening," he said.

McFeely, who also writes a column and blog, was less convinced. He described talk radio as a form of "infotainment" that has less power than fact-based news stories.

"I think that people who listen to talk radio in the first place already have their mind made up for the most part," he said.

The candidates themselves appear to have differing approaches to talk radio. Cramer said he appears regularly on a handful of shows. Heitkamp's campaign said the Democrat "prioritizes in-person meetings, conversations with real journalists, and interviews in which she can talk with the highest number of people in our state."

Cramer, a Republican, said talk radio gives him a chance to explain issues to constituents and hear about their concerns. Recently, his congressional office said he first heard of problems with a local Farm Services Agency office during a radio appearance.

"It is unfiltered and it's more personality driven," Cramer said.

But Cramer's radio appearances also provide fodder for Democrats who relay his comments in press releases. And in recent weeks, he's made headlines for comparing chain-link fences used to detain migrant children to those on playgrounds and for calling Will Gardner, a Republican who dropped his bid for North Dakota secretary of state once his 2006 peeping arrest surfaced, a "very good man" who could run for office again.

Never one to keep his opinions to himself, Cramer was unfazed by the criticism he attracts while on the radio.

"At the end of the day, I'm doing what I'm supposed to do and that is talking to the people I work for," he said.

'I've got hearings'

But while radio personalities, including Joel Heitkamp, said Cramer has been accessible, some of Heidi Heitkamp's conservative detractors criticized her for avoiding them.

Hennen, the host of "What's on Your Mind" on several stations, including WZFG, said Heitkamp hasn't come on his show in almost two years. Port, a frequent Heitkamp critic who also runs SayAnythingBlog.com and writes a twice-weekly column for Forum newspapers, said her office doesn't respond to his interview requests.

Heitkamp's camp defended her accessibility by pointing to the number of meetings and public events she's held, and the candidate herself said she simply doesn't go on talk radio as much as Cramer.

"I don't know how he has time for that," she said. "I've got hearings to go to."

Heitkamp also singled out Port for criticism.

"If I have any kind of concern, it really is not so much with radio, it's with commentary that is completely biased being published every day in the largest newspapers in the state," she said.

Port countered that Heitkamp's strategy may be politically sound but "politicians shouldn't get to play it safe."

"Anytime you expose yourself more to the public, you probably give yourself more opportunities to either have your political enemies cherry-pick things or to say something that's truly provocative or truly controversial that might earn you some blowback," Port said.

Rosenwald said there are differences between how members of each party tend to approach talk radio, a medium that he said helped reveal a demand from conservatives who resented mainstream media sources that were deemed too liberal.

"For him, it's tending to his base," he said. "For her, her base is going to be found in other places."

Heitkamp said listeners tend to favor hosts with whom they share political views, and she was unsure how many people can be "persuaded because of what goes on in talk radio." Still, she sees it as "an opportunity to have a discussion about what's happening and explain in greater detail positions that are taken."

Joel Heitkamp, who served as a Democratic state senator from 1995 to 2008, said it's not his job to promote his sister, but rather to give people access to her. The host of KFGO's "News and Views" said he agrees with her on issues like the Republican-backed tax cuts, which Heidi Heitkamp voted against, but finds fault with some appointees she's voted to confirm.

"She certainly agrees with President Trump way more than I do," Joel Heitkamp said.

Hennen called the medium an "opportunity to come on and compare notes" with what he called a conservative audience that represents the state's political leanings. He declined to label himself a promoter of Cramer's campaign, despite his enthusiasm for the congressman's entrance into the Senate race in February, when he called Cramer a "friend."

"It isn't about advocacy for one candidate, it's about sharing what you believe," Hennen said. "My role is to have a conversation and a discussion about what they care about."

Joel Heitkamp

Stations: KFGO, KEYZ, KNDK, KXPO, KLXX

Years as host: 13

Political persuasion: Left-leaning

Scott Hennen

Stations: KFYR, KLTC, WZFG, KTGO

Years as host: 32

Political persuasion: Right-leaning

Mike McFeely

Stations: WDAY

Years as host: 10

Political persuasion: Left-leaning

Rob Port

Stations: WDAY

Years as host: Nearly two

Political persuasion: Right-leaning

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

(701) 255-5607
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