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In local talk radio, 2nd jobs a necessity, sometimes a conflict

Nathaniel Herz
Loren Holmes

For the nation's top hosts, talk radio is a lucrative job. Conservative Rush Limbaugh makes an estimated $66 million annually, according to Forbes' latest estimates, while Howard Stern rakes in $95 million.

In Anchorage? Part-time hosts in the nation's 170th largest market can earn as little as $1,200 a month.

"It's why I'm rooting for an increase in the minimum wage," said Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat who co-hosts a morning talk show on AM radio station KFQD.

But Berkowitz doesn't rely solely on his radio income to pay the bills. He's also senior vice president at the local office of a consulting firm, Strategies 360, that has worked on the marijuana legalization initiative and an Anchorage Assembly campaign.

Berkowitz's on-air partner and foil, Republican Bernadette Wilson, works for the group on the opposite side of the marijuana initiative.

Berkowitz and Wilson are just two of the many local hosts with second jobs that can intersect with topics treated on their shows -- a dynamic that some see as ethically questionable if hosts don't make their ties to campaigns and candidates clear.

That was highlighted this month when another KFQD host, conservative Dave Stieren, was the subject of a complaint to the Federal Communications Commission alleging he'd given favorable treatment to U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, who paid Stieren's consulting firm nearly $7,000 for media training and coaching.

Other hosts with ties to politics include Mike Porcaro, whose consulting firm, Porcaro Communications, has received millions of dollars from oil companies to promote the campaign opposing a repeal of last year's tax cut for the oil industry.

Tom Anderson, who hosts a show on Valley News Talk, is the managing partner at a public relations firm that has worked with Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lesil McGuire.

Those types of relationships stand in contrast to the rules at Alaska Public Media, according to Charles Wohlforth, a former Anchorage Assembly member who hosts two shows on local station KSKA.

Wohlforth said he must pitch each idea for his "Hometown, Alaska" show to one of APM's executives, who occasionally rejects them if there's a potential conflict. That's happened over things as small as an opinionated Facebook post, Wohlforth said.

"It's a different world," he said. "We're trying to serve the listener in the best, most serious way possible."

The complaint against Stieren, Wohlforth added, "kind of blew my mind."

Talk radio is different, hosts said in a series of interviews.

There's nothing wrong with discussing a political race or an issue that you or your firm is being paid to work on, hosts said -- as long as that relationship is disclosed up front, even if that goes above and beyond federal rules.

"At the very least, tell people," said Shannyn Moore, a host on KOAN who years ago worked with the Renewable Resources Coalition holding town hall meetings on the proposed Pebble mine project. "It's not that you have to quit your job."

The outside work is an inevitable consequence of working in the Anchorage market, according to Porcaro, who said he took a hiatus from talk radio at one point in order to earn a better living.

"Everbody's gotta eat," Porcaro said. "I left radio because I was starting a family. And now my family's all grown, I can afford to go back into radio."

Conflict of interest rules for talk radio hosts are loose, according to Berkowitz, a former state legislator, when compared to those for reporters or lawmakers.

"Talk radio is entertainment," Berkowitz said. "Talk radio hosts aren't journalists -- they're not bound by journalistic standards."

Still, he, Porcaro and others said they simply disclose any time they have a potential conflict.

Mike Robbins, who manages five local stations in his job as president of Alaska Integrated Media, said there's an "internal policy" requiring his hosts to do the same -- though he added there's no corresponding language in hosts' contracts and said he was unaware of any corresponding federal rules.

Nonetheless, it's in the best interests of hosts to be upfront about potential conflicts so they don't draw unwanted attention, Porcaro added.

"The last thing in the world I want to do is to taint anything that happens for my client," he said. "My interest here is to make sure that my client's message gets out clearly and unimpeded by what I would call collateral nonsense."

The FCC complaint -- filed by a registered Democrat and since publicized by the state Democratic Party -- may not help Stieren in his consulting business.

But it actually could burnish his credentials with his conservative audience, said Eddie Burke, a former host himself.

"The people that listen to Dave's station are conservative to moderate Republicans -- they could give a rat's ass about some liberal Democrat making a complaint," Burke said. "They think that's a badge of honor."

But the best arrangement for a talk show host is being your own boss, Burke said. He ran a mortgage company while he hosted his show, which insulated him against complaints to supervisors, but he has since switched to a public-sector position that precluded him from staying on the air.

Keeping a second job, Burke added, can be difficult for hosts, because to be good on the radio, "you've got to be able to speak your mind."

"And when you speak your mind, you piss people off," he said.

Glen Biegel, a right-wing host with a morning show on KBYR, works for the Alaska Railroad and says he's not allowed to talk about his employer on the air.

Biegel has done his own political work, providing advice to candidates like Sarah Palin and Joe Miller "whenever they want it." But he doesn't get paid, he said.

Biegel, who works in information technology, has also paired with state House candidate Anand Dubey to create database software that could be used by political campaigns or marketing firms.

It's still in testing stages, though, and Biegel said he hadn't earned any money from it.

Subsisting solely on talk radio pay in Anchorage is nearly impossible, according to Burke, the former host.

He said most hosts make in the range of $2,000 to $3,000 a month, with more established names earning more.

The idea that hosts should steer clear of any outside work that risks on-air conflicts is not realistic, Stieren said.

"I think people who ascribe to that position can pull out a checkbook and write us a check," he said.

But Stieren added he now plans to be aggressive about disclosing his firm's consulting work for Sullivan, the U.S. Senate candidate.

"I'm going to say it more than I have to, more than I want to, more than I need to," Stieren said. "Just so everybody's happy."

If talk radio is so cash-poor, then why do hosts bother? Stieren said he asks himself that question every day.

Robbins, the station manager, had a straightforward answer.

Hosts, he said, "have an opinion they believe needs to be shared."

And, he added: "They like to talk."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com