Monday, 27 March 2023

Martin Steele: Equal time is fair play in public elections

I recently interviewed Jessica Pyska on one of the local radio stations. The one-hour interview was part of an equal time provision and the subject of a recent letter to the editor (Lori Coovert, “Voting for Bill Kearney for District 5 supervisor,” Oct. 14).

The equal time rules are governed by the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that licenses broadcasting entities. Among other things, the rule requires broadcasters, radio and television, to treat political candidates the same with respect to air time.

As legally qualified candidates for public office, Jessica and her opponent are subject to these rules as is the radio station that allowed Jessica equal time and, apparently, suspended her political opponent’s show during the remainder of the election.

Running for public office can be challenging. The process is fraught with rules – the reason candidates form campaign teams and sometimes hire consultants to help them. And, the campaign tactics sometimes get rough. Sadly, allegations made are believed if not responded to and so it goes.

When I saw the letter from Ms. Coovert it drew me back to a negative campaign mailer Jessica’s opponent put out implying she was dishonest – in campaign parlance, it was a “hit piece,” a legal though unsavory tactic.

As to the equal time rule and rationale for suspending a radio program consider that, in political campaigns, name recognition is crucial. Candidates strive to put their name out to voters using signs, literature, public appearances and the media, including radio. As a volunteer radio programmer and prior campaign manager, I’ve worked with the equal time rule but it doesn’t surprise me that it may not register as an obvious “known” to candidates.

The equal time rule is about fairness. If you happen to be in broadcasting with a show of your own when you decide to run for political office, you will probably be asked to discontinue your show. If not, perhaps you should volunteer to do so. I personally know political candidates that have.

Some radio stations have an explicit policy to suspend the shows of radio programmers who decide to run for office. In so doing, they avoid the equal time rule. This practice complies with the FCC equal opportunity laws (reference FCC Equal Opportunities Section 73.1941) and spares management the disruptive scheduling nightmare of providing equal time to all candidates.

In short, it is misleading to blame Jessica for cancelling the radio program of her opponent. She did not. That was the decision of the broadcasting station and, in my view, they were right to do so.

Although I am not a voter in District 5, I have come to know Jessica through her good and abundant deeds in the community. She is ethical, honest with strong family and community values. She’s been through many trials including the loss of her home to the Valley fire, yet she stands strong, working at the ground level – helping others is second nature.

Jessica doesn’t deserve to be characterized in the negative and inaccurate ways I’ve seen in the opposition’s campaign thus far. But don’t take my word for it – get to know her and her work and decide for yourself.

Olga Martin Steele lives in Clearlake Oaks, California.

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