18 April 2006

Yack radio: the Newfoundland and Labrador phenomenon

Radio call-in shows are popular in Newfoundland and Labrador in a way that eclipses experience elsewhere in North America and, to a certain extent, defies understanding.

Unlike the conventional talk show format in Canada which they followed more than a decade ago, the three major shows in Newfoundland and Labrador do not feature guests anymore. Instead, callers discuss topics of their own choosing or pick up on topics suggested at the start of the program by the host.

Not so long ago, local talk radio on the commercial network featured everything from psychics to popular Irish music groups to people flogging their books. The whole thing was pure entertainment.

All that changed in 1996 with Brian Tobin. The new Premier started to call in to comment on major issues or to challenge his political opponents. Pretty soon he pushed his cabinet ministers onto the airwaves, followed by his backbenchers.

By the time Roger Grimes replaced Tobin, the government's focus on talk radio as its major communications effort was cemented. Cabinet ministers didn't just call to discuss major government announcements. Political staff were tasked to monitor the shows, organize political supporters to call and prepare talking points - prepared scripts with key messages that had to be used. Sometimes the results were unintentionally funny. On one day a group of planted callers all mentioned their support for Roger Grimes' vision for the province. After a few of these plants sprouted, one of the hosts asked a simple and obvious question: "What is Roger's vision?" They didn't have a reply; it wasn't in the script.

Today Open Line on the commercial network is a major part of provincial government communications. The Grimes approach with dedicated political staff has been expanded to include the government communications staff - the public servants. Equipped with cell phones and ready access to e-mails, government officials will now organize a response to critical callers almost immediately.

Not so very long ago, the sort of organized talk show effort mounted at public expense would only be used during political campaigns and then solely by the political parties. Today, carrying on the trend started with Brian Tobin, the Williams administration applies campaign communications techniques day in and day out.

The commercial talk shows have changed in response to the audience. Gone are the planned guests, the last gizmo pitchman and the Australian hypnotist. Where once there was one and then two programs there are three, occupying among them about eight hours of any day, everyday except Saturday.

The whole approach - government ministers calling talk shows - is so commonplace that while once a cabinet minister or the premier could call and get on the air right away, these days they are put on hold just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, they can wait there for three quarters of an hour or more for their turn to chat with the host.

Riffing on the call letters of the main commercial radio station - VOCM - one wag christened the whole thing voice of the cabinet minister where 20 years earlier the Open Line show host boasted it stood for voice of the common man.

On the surface, the situation looks egalitarian. Callers decide what gets talked about. The Premier of the province takes the time to call in and respond to this or that ordinary citizen or to explain the government's position on a major event without going through the filter of a reporter.

On the face of it, it looks like ordinary Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are not just on the same level as their elected leaders, they appear to be able to drive government action. A complaint about a dangerous intersection on a highway in eastern Newfoundland can get an intergovernmental affairs minister away from his other work to express his concern about the situation and assure everyone that something is being done.

Look a little deeper and the perspective changes a bit.

Government political communications of this type are aimed at influencing the opinion environment. Callers are organized to say the same or very similar things to give the appearance that the government enjoys widespread support. It's a psychological thing; people tend to conform to what they perceive as the majority view. Just think about it this way: how many people could you find on October 23rd - one day after the last provincial general election - who would admit they voted for Roger Grimes?

Repetition isn't enough. What gets repeated is important as well. That's the message - the main idea, expressed in simple language, that you want people to remember. The most common message of the Williams administration - whether it is Abitibi, Exxon or Paul Martin is that mainlanders are trying to rip us off and Danny Williams is putting a stop to it. There are all sorts of variations on the theme, but it all boils down to the same point.

That isn't a very complex idea, so it is easy to grasp. Talk to someone about the inner workings of federal-provincial fiscal relations and the distribution of offshore oil and gas revenues and you'll watch people fall asleep. Tell them Ottawa is shagging us - yet again - and that Danny is defending us and you will see their eyes come to life.

There's another part of the core message: it fits not only with the instinctive pride of Newfoundlanders in their identity, the whole victim interpretation has been pounded so relentlessly by some politicians for so long that it has become part of the local popular culture. Just mention "Upper Churchill" and instinctively people know the code word for "give-away".

Anyone who has listened to Open Line shows over the long haul will recognize that philosophy - call it the "pimple on the arse" school of Newfoundland history. Think about it for a second and you'll see that some of the most persistent callers reinforce the same core message, time after time.

This is not to say there are not other messages on other issues, but even those are complimentary. The province was in a financial mess. Danny Williams fixed it. The province was lost and without pride. Now we have it back, thanks to Danny Williams.

That message of pride is not the sort of thing that springs fullformed from the lips of people most of us run into on a daily basis at the local grocery store, Wal-Mart or over a cup of Tim's; but it's the main part of this year's throne speech and, curiously enough, the observation of a caller on Easter Monday who backed the Premier on the Hebron issue solely because it is a matter of pride. Hebron hasn't been a big topic on any of the call-in shows but that caller claimed the issue just wouldn't go away.

One can get into a chicken and egg relationship here. But if one understands the extent to which government political communications since 1996 has been driven by public opinion polling and it becomes clear that the whole package is designed to align government with familiar - primarily emotional - responses and to reinforce those responses.

That isn't to say that other ideas don't come up with Randy, Bill or Linda. Of course, they do. But when it comes to issues in which government is very concerned, they are organized to use radio call-in shows as a major way of getting their point across.

Sometimes it seems like the only way. Telegram managing editor Russell Wangersky related a story to CBC television recently about trying to get a telephone interview with the Premier. According to the Premier's staff, The Boss wasn't available. Yet he managed to call every single radio talk show that same day.

There are advantages for government to this approach as well. In being interviewed by a reporter, there is the chance the reporter can come prepared with questions - sometimes hard questions - that expose subtle nuances or major aspects of an issue that doesn't fit the government agenda. on a radio call-in show the politicians get to say what they want. The host is unprepared and even a newsroom veteran like Randy Simms often has a limited background knowledge of a subject to be able to penetrate beyond the prepared talking points the Premier or any other politician wants to deliver.

With CBC radio or television, the Telegram or NTV, the politician's interview becomes just part of an overall story in which the reporter's perspective on the whole story doesn't follow the government point of view. VOCM's emphasis on spot news, as legitimate an approach as that is, makes it all the more open to manipulation. If a minister makes an announcement on the air with Bill Rowe and it is guaranteed to be repeated throughout the day and maybe into the next, virtually unedited.

It's true that other media can be managed in a similar way. In the 1999 general election, Brian Tobin set the time to announce the election to coincide with both supper hour news casts. He got more than 13 minutes of uninterrupted time to send his election messages to as wide an audience he could on as influential a medium as he could get.

But that was an election. Talk radio is six days a week.

Aside from the 2004 offshore revenue fight with Ottawa, one of the best recent examples of the power of talk radio and message management is the coincidental timing of the Costco seal capsules story and the collapse of the Hebron talks. The Telegram carried a story on Friday March 31 claiming that Costco has pulled seal oil capsules from its shelves in response to pressure from anti-sealing activists. Oddly enough, that story turned out to be wrong. Dead wrong and for the Telegram, it was strange for a story to appear without having been subjected to simple fact checking.

The story developed legs when Randy Simms introduced it as a topic for his program at 9:00 AM. So intense was the popular reaction that before close of business, the Premier's Office issued a news release expressing the provincial government's disappointment with the supposed Costco decision and committing to gain a meeting for the deputy premier with Costco management.

As we learned subsequently, the Premier knew at that point that the Hebron talks were in jeopardy if not dead altogether.

On Monday morning, the Hebron partners announced that they were shelving the project. The Premier and his energy minister scrummed with local media. There was no written statement. Nor did the Premier make a ministerial statement in the legislature that afternoon even though such a public comment would be considered almost mandatory considering the collapse of talks about a deal worth about $15 billion to the local treasury and economy.

Curiously enough, though, there were virtually no callers to local radio shows that afternoon or evening. Bill Rowe, host of the afternoon show Back Talk, didn't mention the Hebron story as a possible topic. In fact, and astonishingly, there was no mention of Hebron at all until 45 minutes into the show. Even then a lone caller mentioned his support for the Premier in passing before going on to talk about another topic.

Had the provincial government wanted to deploy its message troops to reinforce the Premier's blaming ExxonMobil for the fiasco, it would have done so as easily as it has on previous occasions. Instead, there was an almost deafening silence. Except for the handful of callers who criticized the odd caller raising questions about the deal's collapse, Hebron was almost invisible on the radio talk shows.

Costco's decision to remove seal oil capsules, on the other hand, was everywhere. No accident that the core messages on seals were about pride, tradition and fighting the anti-seal hunt protesters and their lies, as Danny Williams has done consistently since early March. Hebron, which raised potential questions about the Premier's approach and might stir widespread political opposition from the government's business supporters, was tamped down.

A great deal has changed in Newfoundland and Labrador talk radio over the past 10 years. It isn't simple entertainment. It isn't the electronic version of Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park.

It also isn't a sinister plot aimed at mind control.

Rather it is perceived by some people responsible for government communications as being an effective vehicle for managing information flows, dominating the opinion environment and keeping public support for government as high as possible.

It is the epitome of what one wit referred to as Tobin's political philosophy: an announcement a week and a good poll.

But as Tobin himself set the trend, the package now includes regular calls to Bill, randy and Linda.