Radio Ads Still Relevant In Presidential Campaigns

Radio may sound so early 20th century, but it remains a key part of the ad strategies for the Obama and Romney campaigns — albeit under the radar for the most part. The candidates and their supporters use radio as a way to narrow cast to targeted demographic groups. And it's a way to reach base voters with messages that might not appeal to — and in fact could turn off — a wider audience.

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This campaign season most of us have been bombarded by political ads on TV. Those ads get the most attention from fact-checkers and opposing campaigns, but the presidential candidates are also running lots of spots on commercial radio stations. It gives them a chance to target particular kinds of people, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Radio and politics have a long and rich partnership dating back to the medium's infancy. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge bought air time to broadcast his speeches. Now, nearly 100 years later, presidential candidates are still using radio but with a difference. University of Missouri professor Marvin Overby says the nation's more than 11,000 commercial stations are being used not so much to broadcast but to narrow cast.

MARVIN OVERBY: They tend to be very program driven, and a lot of that is going to revolve around the music that the station chooses to play, and music tends to track demographics very well. So you don't have middle-aged white soccer moms listening to the same radio stations as 20-something urban African-Americans.

NAYLOR: As a result, Overby says it's much easier for campaigns to target their messages using radio than with TV. For instance, here is an Obama campaign ad aimed at African-Americans listening to urban radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Four years ago, we made history. Now, it's time to move forward and finish what we started together. We have to show the president we have his back.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) We've got your back.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We can't afford to spend the next four years going backwards. I'm running...

NAYLOR: The Romney campaign, meanwhile, recently rolled out an ad for Spanish language radio aimed at Latino voters. It features the comedian Paul Rodriguez.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

PAUL RODRIGUEZ: (Foreign language spoken)

NAYLOR: Romney has a plan to create 12 million jobs, Rodriguez says, reduce the debt and reform education. President Obama tried but couldn't do it. Outside groups, which are spending millions for and against the presidential candidates, are also using radio. Planned Parenthood is airing this pro-Obama spot in the battleground states of Ohio and Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Here's what Romney said.

MITT ROMNEY: The actions I'll take immediately are to remove funding for Planned Parenthood.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: That's cancer screenings and birth control for millions of women that Romney is vowing to take away.

NAYLOR: Americans for Prosperity, the Republican-leaning issues group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, is airing this ad in Virginia's coal country.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Listen to President Obama's own words.

OBAMA: Under my plan of a cap-and-trade system, electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Tell President Obama his policies are hurting Virginians. Go to failingagenda.com to stand with coal and sign the petition. America's...

NAYLOR: Because radio often flies under the radar, it's used by campaigns to air negative ads aimed at a candidate's base but which might turn off a larger audience. John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, says a Democratic Senate candidate from Tennessee was the target of one controversial ad six years ago.

JOHN GEER: There was an ad here against Harold Ford that had a theme of tom-toms in the background. It had, you know, it had an imagery of kind of an African beat to it which I had never seen in a political ad before, but, of course, they were sending a racial message.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Harold Ford Jr. grew up in D.C., Bob Corker in Tennessee.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

NAYLOR: Campaigns also like the radio because it's harder to tune out as it were. Viewers watching TV can DVR past the commercials or get up off the couch for a snack when the ads come on. Not so easy to do when you're in the car driving home. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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