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Our Democratic Duty



I just found out how insignificant I am.

I already knew that living in California meant that my vote in the presidential election was pretty much a foregone conclusion. So no presidential campaign or Superpac would seek to sway it. Depending on which news publication or blog you read, between nine and 11 states are up for grabs and so the campaigns spend their dollars only on voters in those states. Even if California were a swing state, I'm registered Green, and that pretty much gives away which direction I'll swing. But to make matters worse, I watch Buffy reruns on TV.

Let me back up. In an Associated Press story I just read, a media analyst estimated that political campaigns will spend more than $3 billion on TV and radio ads to sway voters in the November election. That's almost $25 for every registered voter in the United States. So consider how much that is per registered voter in just those states. They'll spend about 75 percent of that on local stations. And lord knows, our TV and radio stations need those dollars. The campaigns -- candidate campaigns, Superpacs and Republican and Democratic national organizations -- have been scrambling since May to buy up future air time; the commercial minutes have flown off the shelves like bread and toilet paper during a hurricane alert.

Here's the problem. Ryan Erwin, a consultant for Nevada Republican Congressman Joe Heck, told the National Journal that it was important to reserve air time early; it means getting on during the network news instead of reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He said: "No offense to Buffy, but as you target demographics and put together a strategic placement that makes sense for the voters you're trying to reach, you've got a limited opportunity to reach them."


For the last couple of weeks I've been watching Buffy reruns. We're in that dead zone between final episodes of the winter shows and the season openers of the summer shows. The Killing ended and I'm waiting for Covert Affairs to start back up. There's nothing on. So I found myself watching that last season of Buffy. I was an avid Buffy fan back in 2002, but the last season went downhill so I skipped it until the final episode (which was killer!). But nine years later, with only dim memories of the show in my head and nothing else to watch, I found myself recording and watching the episodes I missed. How did I know that would stamp me as worthless? So I'm stuck watching ads for the Shake Weight and the Hot Dog Easy Bun Steamer instead of nasty mudslinging political ads. And because I'm not unique here, our TV and radio stations get shut out of the political largesse.

To make matters worse, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco just ruled that the government can't stop public stations from running political ads. Until now, the Federal Communications Commission wouldn't let public broadcasters take money for any advertising -- the argument went that it would affect programming, since the broadcasters might steer toward programs advertisers would like rather than those in the public's interest. But in April, the court ruled that that argument didn't hold for political ads. The case revolved around San Francisco TV station KMTP, run by an organization called the Minority Television Report. More than a decade ago, the FCC fined it for taking political ads.

As I'm writing this, KHSU is $300 short of making its yearly fundraising goal, something it should have done in the last pledge drive. KEET could sure use some money, as well. So could all of our local TV and radio stations.

Here is how much money we will lose out on because candidates and political parties consider our votes already in their bags. Remember, there is more than $25 per registered voter to be spent on broadcast ads, and three-quarters of that will be spent on local broadcast. There are 75,000 registered voters in Humboldt County. That means we lose out on a minimum of $1.4 million in local ads.  

Another way to look at it is that according to Politico, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is locking up $32 million in ad airtime in 26 close congressional races -- or $1.23 million per congressional race. Since our congressional race isn't likely to be close, we don't get that money. Statewide, we are talking about $322 million that will likely not be spent on our airwaves. That's the cost of our political predictability.

Considering the disastrous state of California's economy I think it is our duty to do something about this. Think of all the sacrifices states and small communities make to get companies to open headquarters or plants in their towns. They give up tax revenues and build roads and sewage systems for free.

First we need to all change our voter registrations to Independent. Then we have to modify our viewing habits so that we look more like a demographically desirable population. No more reruns of Buffy for me or Golden Girls or Seinfeld or whatever it is you are watching that isn't a hit show. Think of it this way. If you can grit your teeth and watch Dancing With the Stars long enough to catch the attention of the Superpac super spenders, KHSU might just be able to afford to keep your precious Prairie Home Companion, and you can settle back into your Barcalounger for the next episode of Antiques Roadshow.

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State. She wants all the intellectual snobs out there to know that when she isn't watching trash TV she is reading The Swerve, which won the 2012 Pulitzer for non-fiction, and she has started to read Edith Grossman's translation of Don Quixote.


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