Sunday, August 25, 2002

Heimlich talking or campaigning?

Radio stint earns a trip to Columbus

        Last February, on most weekday mornings all month, listeners of WKRC radio were treated to, or at least diverted by, a temporary addition to the morning drive-time lineup. Former Cincinnati city councilman Phil Heimlich was guest-hosting on the Cincinnati talk station owned by Clear Channel Communications.

        Mr. Heimlich at the time was the acknowledged front running Republican candidate for Hamilton County Commission, even though he had not formally announced. He would do that in April and win his party's primary in May. The general election is Nov. 7.

        WKRC had asked Mr. Heimlich to replace a vacationing host. And so, Mr. Heimlich got to campaign without seeming to campaign. Listeners called him to chat. Radio personalities joked with him.

        He didn't have to spend a cent.

        WKRC promoted its new host on the air. And it later sponsored a free “Dinner with Phil” at the Maisonette on April 24, six days before Mr. Heimlich formally announced his candidacy.

        Now, the dinner and the radio spots are the grist of a legal challenge before the Ohio Elections Commission. They prompt well-grounded questions about broadcasting fairness in a metro area where most Talk Radio is owned by one company.

        Supporters of Democratic opponent Dr. Jean Siebenaler allege that Mr. Heimlich's time at the microphone amounts to a non-cash, corporate donation to his campaign.

        Ohio's campaign laws forbid corporate contributions. Any “in-kind” contributions from individuals, though legal, must be reported in candidates' monthly campaign finance reports.This was not.

        The case will be heard Sept. 12, in Columbus. It's a first for the seven-member Elections Commission, says Phil Rechter, executive director.

        Usually cases of corporate contributions to candidates involve cash, checks or tangible goods, he says. So, if Clear Channel had donated beer to Mr. Heimlich's headquarters, it would be much simpler.

        But even an estimated 50 hours of air time must be proven to be a corporate gift, he says. The complaint alone “has not made a sufficient showing that this is a corporate contribution,” Mr. Rechter says. “This is not necessarily an easy case.”

        The complaint does not allege that Mr. Heimlich blatantly asked for votes during the broadcasts, Mr. Rechter adds.

        Mr. Heimlich did not return calls Friday. Clear Channel employees directed inquiries to a corporate spokesperson, who didn't return calls.

        Initially, Dr. Siebanaler's campaign sought equal time from Clear Channel, citing federal broadcast rules.

        But station officials rebuffed her, according to the case file, correctly pointing out that requests for equal time must be made within seven days of an opponent's broadcast.

        And, because the May primary had not yet occurred, Dr. Siebenaler wasn't officially Mr. Heimlich's opponent; competing Republican candidate Roy McGrath was.

        Other facts, though, make it look as though Mr. Heimlich intended to campaign on the air.

        He had filed papers as a potential candidate in January. Just days before the shows, he underwent media training with a consultant.

        A week before, he wrote about the talk show stint in an email newsletter to supporters, encouraging them to call in opinions or questions.

        “This is a great opportunity to continue talking about the issues that we all care about: crime prevention, education and taxes.”

        He kept his promise. Those topics came up during interviews and in the typical morning show banter in February.

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