Campaign Expert Neil Oxman Talks About How He Makes Political Ads

Oxman is the founder of The Campaign Group, which has managed ad campaigns for more than 700 races around the country. Ahead of the Congressional elections, he talks about what works and what doesn't.

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A recent analysis by The New York Times found that this year's congressional elections will generate more than $2 billion worth of political advertising on television. Our guest Neil Oxman has been making political ads for more than 30 years. He's a cofounder of The Campaign Group, a Philadelphia-based media firm that's managed ad campaigns in more than 700 races around the country. The firm's clients range from local office seekers to candidates for the House, Senate and, in a few cases, the presidency. Oxman has made ads for Al Gore and for Jerry Springer when he was the mayor of Cincinnati running for governor. Oxman's also managed to fit an interesting hobby into his life, working as a caddie on the Pro Golf Tour. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies sat down with Neil Oxman to talk about how he makes political ads, what works and what doesn't and how the business has changed since he got into it decades ago.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Neil Oxman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've done hundreds of elections. I've heard you say that in pretty much every campaign there are three things you have to do.

NEIL OXMAN: The three things that you want to try to do in a campaign - if you're running a perfect campaign - is define yourself, meaning you define the candidate before your opponent defines him or herself. The second is, define your opponent before the opponent defines himself or herself. And the third thing is you define the stakes of the election. You make the election about something most beneficial to you. Sometimes, the stakes of the election are defined by major national issues - the Watergate year of 1974, the Contract With America year of 1994, the it's the economy, stupid of 1992. I mean, there are seminal years in American politics where something is going on. And if you're in one party or the other, you might get wiped out or you might win regardless of what you do. The stakes of the election, if you can define it and make the campaign about something you want to make it about, is the best thing to do.

DAVIES: Sometimes it's not so obvious. I want to play an example of an ad that you brought. And I think this is a good example of an ad that defines the stakes. And this is an ad for Ronald Reagan. I guess, probably, this was in...

OXMAN: 1984.

DAVIES: 1984.

OXMAN: His reelection with Walter Mondale.

DAVIES: And it's about a bear. Why don't you just - before we listen to it, why don't you describe the visual? What's happening?

OXMAN: Ad done by this amazing ad guy, now passed away, in California, named Hal Riney. You would know Hal Riney because he also did a lot of voiceover commercials. He did them for Gallo Wine. He did them for Alamo Rent A Car. I mean, he had this amazing voice. He's the guy who said in the Reagan commercials in 1984, it's morning again in America. And he made, I think, one of the two greatest ads in American history - the first being Tony Schwartz's ad with the daisy and Lyndon Johnson in 1964, which only ran once - and this ad, where in a sort of very low tone you hear the opening line that says there's a bear in the woods. And it's simply a picture of a bear and a hunter in silhouette. And the hunter has, probably, a shotgun. And the bear obviously represents Russia and - or communism or the Soviet threat. And it's a vague reference to that. But it's really a way of saying Reagan was strong and Mondale wasn't strong about our national defense.

DAVIES: The fascinating thing is you see the bear moving around open terrain. And at the end, he comes face to face with a hunter...

OXMAN: Right.

DAVIES: Who does not level a weapon at him.

OXMAN: No, he does not.

DAVIES: And the question is, is he prepared? Let's listen to this ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

HAL RINEY: There is a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear - if there is a bear?

OXMAN: And I believe at the end of the ad there's a card that says, Ronald Reagan, prepared for peace. And I mean, it was, I think, one of the two most brilliant ads made in the 60-year history of American political advertising.

DAVIES: I want to play an ad that you did for a mayor's race here in Philadelphia in 2007 for Michael Nutter, who is still the mayor of the city. And this was a race where you didn't run any negative ads, if I recall. Except you might have criticized the previous mayor because I think you defined the stakes in that election as to who will take a different direction. Let's just listen to the ad for a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN AD)

OLIVIA NUTTER: My name is Olivia Nutter. This is my dad. This is the house my dad grew up in in West Philadelphia. This is our dog. This is my favorite food. My dad's pretty cool for an old guy. This is where I go to middle school. My dad's the only Democrat for mayor with a child in the public schools. I know he wants to make them better and safer. My dad's pretty busy these days, but he still finds time to take me to school.

MAYOR MICHAEL NUTTER: Have a good day.

O. NUTTER: Yep.

N. NUTTER: Be good.

DAVIES: The daughter of the candidate is the only voice other than a brief mention of the mayor. Tell us your approach there.

OXMAN: Well, I saw Olivia, and I thought, I'm going to use her in a spot somehow. And I wrote on my little pink message pad just her name. And then I wrote some copy, and I ran it by Michael and the current mayor. And Nutter was in last place. In a five-way primary he was - the leader in the campaign was in the 30s, and he was dead last at 7 percent of the vote with the least amount of money. And none of the candidates were sort of making the campaign about anything particularly relevant. And we decided to make the campaign a referendum on who would be least like the mayor who was there then, a guy named John Street. And we ran a couple weeks of TV, and we moved from last to second. But we were having a problem with African-American females, who weren't connecting, for some reason, with Nutter. I could never figure out why. Michael Nutter is an African-American. And so we ran this ad. And when we did, he went into the lead and started doing overwhelmingly better with African-American females and won that quadrant of the vote very handily. Coincidentally, the guy who ran that campaign, Bill Hyers, who did a terrific job, then ran Bill de Blasio's campaign for mayor in New York City last year, who came from behind and used his son in an ad, which is largely credited with getting de Blasio elected mayor. I don't know whether they stole our ad. I won't say they did. I think David Axelrod did the - did it. And nothing is original after the 1950s in political advertising - or '60s, I should say. So - but it really did work.

DAVIES: Everybody looks at everybody else's stuff. Now, you say that, in the case of that ad, you needed to boost Nutter's standing among African-American women. How much of what you do in designing and messaging ads is driven by polls and research?

OXMAN: All of it, if you're smart. I mean, I don't mean that you take a poll, and if somebody - you can't do what Romney did. You can't just take a poll and sort of remake yourself. I mean, here's Mitt Romney, who was pro-choice and pro-environment and pro-healthcare and governed like a liberal in Massachusetts and ran as a liberal and governed as a liberal - and then, wake up one day and say, I'm going to run for president and completely disband that. We don't take polls to tell a candidate what to do - you know, to change his opinion or her opinion about certain things. We take polls to sort of emphasize in certain area. I mean, if you're running for governor of a state and the state is rural and urban, you're not necessarily running spots about farms in the urban part of the of the state. I mean, you have to be somewhat smart about that. But what we try to do with ads is A, have the right message, meaning we're saying the right things and B, of course, target that message to the right group of people.

DAVIES: You know, I don't see many ads in which candidates speak directly into the camera. And I would imagine that when you talk to candidates, a lot of them think they're pretty impressive people one-on-one and probably want to do that. When do you let a candidate talk into the camera?

OXMAN: If the candidate is good - I mean, 'cause there are tricks you can do. You can have the candidate start talking. And then you can cut away and use that as an audio edit or use that as a video edit if, for some reason, the candidate has blinked or looked weirdly into the monitor, whatever it is. And we do it - you know, you're going to laugh at this. But we did Jerry Springer's campaign for governor of Ohio. Now, Jerry Springer was - Jerry Springer was a young, idealistic mayor of Cincinnati who got in trouble because he went into a house of ill repute in northern Kentucky and passed a check and got drunk...

DAVIES: He paid for the services with a check.

OXMAN: Yes. But he runs for governor. And my friend Mike Ford hired us. Michael Ford, who just passed away, who was a great political operative in the United States - I mean, one of the giants in this business - was running his campaign for governor of Ohio. And Michael said to my producer Mark Moskowitz, this guy can really talk to the camera, but no one knows it. And most of the spots we had Springer talk to the camera. Well, when the campaign was over, Springer only got 15 percent of the vote. When the campaign was over - he lost the primary - the TV station in Cincinnati said to Springer, do you want to do editorial comments for us? And they said yes. And he started doing those, and they make him the anchor. And that - from there he got a regional talk show. And from there he became Jerry Springer - so, I mean, literally because he talked to the camera in spots that we made for him in a losing gubernatorial campaign in Ohio in 1982, I think it was.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Neil Oxman. He is the founder of The Campaign Group and a veteran of making political ads. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and if you're just joining us, our guest is veteran political consultant Neil Oxman. He is the founder of The Campaign Group. They've made the political ads for over 700 campaigns over the last several decades.

So as a campaign proceeds, things can get tough. Are there typical arguments you get into with a candidate about a media strategy? I mean, there must be tapes that go over and over in your head.

OXMAN: Mostly about going negative. Mostly about you know, jeez I want to the campaign my way - I don't want to have to go negative. I mean, that's really what the large - most of the fights are about. Of course, that immediately changes when you know, you get attacked. And sometimes you don't have any notice. Now, sometimes we get noticed because the ad gets traffic to the TV station and somebody at the TV station - we get lucky and somebody calls us and says - or, sometimes actually the campaigns preview the negative ads. But you know, sometimes we'll get a call from the candidate and the candidate's wife and you know, it's 7:18 and I'm just watching "Jeopardy" and they go crazy. And that conversation goes entirely out the window. And so you have to just deal with it.

DAVIES: You brought a couple of other ads. This is an ad attacking Mark Pryor who is - well, you explain who he is and who put this ad together.

OXMAN: Mark Pryor's the United States Senator from Arkansas running for re-election and Karl Rove's independent committee crossroads. Karl Rove, who worked - who was the political genius behind George Bush. And has done - started up an independent committee and supports Republican candidates around the country - produced this ad that's running in Arkansas - or, ran in Arkansas this year - against Mark Pryor, who's running for re-election in Arkansas. I think it's a terrific ad.

DAVIES: And it's an ad of a kid at a spelling bee. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2014 CAMPAIGN AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Your next word is Pryor.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: May I have the definition, please?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Pryor - a Washington liberal, out of touch with Arkansas, voted for the Obama agenda 90 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: May I hear it in a sentence?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Mark Pryor was the deciding vote for Obamacare.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Pryor - O-B-A-M-A.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Close enough.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Close enough.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Close enough.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: American Crossroads is responsible for the content of this advertising.

DAVIES: Close enough, the judges say - Obama equals Pryor.

OXMAN: Oh it's terrific because when you see it, the beginning of the ad looks exactly like everything you've seen for any spelling bee you've seen on national television, or all the movies that do spelling bees. And it's a little girl sitting there and they do it in the exact format. And my guess is, not knowing the polling research, but my guess is that if you polled right now - Barack Obama's name in Arkansas; it's obviously very negative. And equally, Mark Pryor to Barack Obama is not a good thing for Mark Pryor. But the effectiveness of the ad is how exactly close the ad looks like a real spelling bee thing. There's no phoniness about it. Really - oh, this is a spelling bee?

DAVIES: So if you're Mark Pryor and that ad comes at you - what would you advise him to do?

OXMAN: That's a really hard ad to respond to, Dave. Because the ad is so real. It's not a fake-o ad, in the sense that it's something in real life. But what you would probably do is, you'd probably say - you'd probably stop the ad and say, see this ad? These aren't real people. These are actors.

DAVIES: You'd run a piece of that ad and say, hold it.

OXMAN: These aren't real people - these are actors and this isn't a real spelling bee. And Mark Pryor voted against Obama when he opposed Obama on this, and this, and this, and this and this. Mark Pryor - an independent voice for Arkansas.

I don't know if it would work because I thought that ad's one of the most effective ad I've seen in the cycle.

DAVIES: Not bad for a 15-second pitch. When you're doing a campaign - a congressional campaign, a Senate campaign - and somebody unleashes a hard-hitting attack ad on your opponent, is it better to respond by attacking your opponent, or by doing an ad defending your candidate?

OXMAN: There's no rule, Dave. Every campaign is different. Every set of circumstances is different. Every part of the country is different. And a lot of it - some of it's science and some of it's poetry. Some of it's prose and poetry. Some of it is where you sort of see where you are in the polls and whether you need to take a two-by-four and kill the guy, or whether you just sort of need to brush your opponent back a little bit and then go to the main message of what you have to talk about.

DAVIES: When you're making a negative ad - a contrastive ad, an attack ad - are there ways to do it that kind of protects your own candidate's reputation a bit? Makes them still seem statesmanlike?

OXMAN: Well, sure. It depends on the tone of the ad; the heavy handedness and the tone of the ad. You know, sometimes then you might start with negative and then switch to positive so that the ad has kind of a feel-good feeling and you do it that way. You don't want the ad to be so ominous that it's - the ad has to be believable. I mean, what I liked about that Mark Pryor ad that you were talking about is that it's very believable because it's something that everybody sees. You know, you've seen these spelling bee things. And they're very accessible to you.

I mean, and ad has to believable. I mean, some of the ads that you see, where charges are leveled; they're just so out of the blue and so unbelievable - so and so voted essentially not to fund any, you know, missile programs ever; we're all going to die in a nuclear attack tomorrow. I mean, but these exaggerations are so hyperbolic that they're just not believable. So the attacks - you know, what you want to do is make sure when you are doing these attacks that there's credibility to them and there's believability to them. And then sometimes, you end an ad with positive - you do a sort of change in tone and end it with positive so that you get a different feeling.

DAVIES: You know, for years now, the media have been analyzing political ads and truth squad-ing them, right - well, this claim doesn't quite hold up, that one's a half-truth.

If you're in the middle of a campaign and the media criticize the accuracy or fairness of your ad, do you care?

OXMAN: You used to care a lot more than you do now. One of the great tragedies of course, that's happened in America is the slow demise of the American newspaper. Where, you know, if you ran for governor or senator in a state and it was a big state, you'd have dozens of reporters sometimes following a campaign. Now you might have a handful. And so you don't have the same kind of local political coverage. You do in a mayor's race - you do clearly in a presidential campaign. But if you're running for Congress in this country - you're running for the Senate or you're running for governor - the kind of scrutiny you get from the free press is not nearly as acute as it used to be. And so sometimes you avoid it.

Now, I've had people literally run ads against our clients saying that one of our clients raised taxes - voted to raise taxes in the legislature. Absolutely did not happen - never voted - actually voted the other way. The press didn't do nothing because there was no press covering the campaign.

And so you know, sometimes you - sometimes - and so there was no truth squad out there saying, you know, this ad of our opponent was wrong. I mean, so you try to do truthful things in campaigns. And you want to make sure that you - you want to make sure what you're saying in a campaign doesn't come back to haunt you. That's the number one goal of what you want to do. You don't want to become an issue in the campaign.

DAVIES: How has the business changed in the what, 35 years you've been doing it?

OXMAN: Well, the biggest thing is, it is united in money. I mean, 30 years ago when we started, a good congressional campaign in any district in America might spend $200,000 on TV. Now a good congressional campaign any place in America spends two to $3 million on TV - certainly way beyond the cost of inflation. I mean, unbelievably beyond the cost of inflation. Even beyond the cost of the way college in tuitions have gone up. I mean, the cost of American television has exceeded every year the cost of inflation by many times. So what - you used to be able to buy an ad in some media market, on the "Today" show for X. And now to get less of an audience on the "Today" show in the same market costs five times X.

So money is the biggest single thing. And then of course, now it's all the independent expenditures, the - I don't know whether independent expenditures this year, meaning independent committees raising money away from a campaign itself - the candidate's campaign themselves - will spend as much money as all the campaigns combined.

But we're getting to the point where it is really close, where everybody I know who does this business are doing as much business in their own firms you know, from independent committees, as they are from clients.

DAVIES: So the people that are hiring you to make ads aren't candidates?

OXMAN: No, they're independent committees because the reporting rules are a lot different. And you can have - it's not about personal money. You can give corporate money. And so if somebody goes to a friend and says, hey, give me a $100,000 from your corporation - if it's a privately held corporation - instead of $2,500 from you and this $100,000 is never going to be reported, that's why so much of this independent money is being raised.

DAVIES: And so if the court decisions now mean there are these independent groups who have a lot of money to put into political advertising, does the character of the advertising itself change? If it's not the candidate putting their name to it, doesn't mean it's...

OXMAN: It's become much more negative. The ratio of negative to positive has gotten much higher.

GROSS: Neil Oxman will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Oxman is a campaign media consultant who has made political ads for more than 30 years.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with political media consultant Neil Oxman. Oxman is a cofounder of The Campaign Group which has managed ad campaigns in more than 700 races around the country.

When we left off, they were discussing how the business is changing as a result of the Citizens United decision, which enables corporations and unions to spend unlimited money on campaign ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DAVIES: It seems what happens - and I've covered some congressional races here - is that when there is a competitive congressional race, outside money floods in, and it becomes a nationalized election. We're really not talking exactly about citizens choosing their own representatives. We're talking about national interest groups bombarding people with messaging.

OXMAN: One of the reasons, Dave, is because of the 435 congressional districts in America, very, very few now are really competitive. If you sit and look at the Almanac of American Politics from 10 years ago and 20 and 30 and 40 years ago - if you just go back for the last 40 years - the almanac, I think started in '72. There at one point would be between 150 and 200 legitimately contested congressional races in America. Now you're down, literally, to fewer - 50, or fewer than 50 because of redistricting and re-apportionment.

And so you have so much money flowing into so few congressional districts. You know, you have 300 congressional districts where not a penny is spent. And you'll have 50 where five or $10 million or more is spent on a congressional campaign. What used to be spent on a major statewide campaign is spent on one little race for Congress.

DAVIES: Campaigns can be pretty intense, particularly in the last two or three weeks. How quickly can you turn around a response ad?

OXMAN: You get attacked. You make a response ad in a relatively few hours, and then you put it up on satellite and it gets to the TV stations right away. So if you're attacked on a Monday and you find out Monday morning, you can pretty much be - Tuesday morning you can be on with a response ad.

The biggest lag time, actually, is once the ad gets to the TV stations, how quickly they log the ad in at the TV station, and they put it in rotation into their sort of commercial cycle. Weekends are really bad, which is why you'll see a lot of attack ads start after noon on Friday - because the weekends, often you're not able to respond. And so they get sort of a 48 or 63 hours before you can respond by Monday.

DAVIES: Because the TV stations...

OXMAN: TV stations are closed.

DAVIES: ...are thinly staffed on weekends and they just can't turn them around.

OXMAN: Absolutely. And they'll tell you that, you know, there's no one there. And the other thing is that some people at the TV stations make mistakes, and they run the wrong ads. That happens all the time. They log in the wrong ads. And oh my Lord, an attack ad is running, and you don't want it to run. And you started out - I mean it's literally like starting a nuclear war. Somebody's pressed the wrong button. It's - that's literally what's happened. Somebody's pressed the wrong button. It started a gigantic war in the campaign, and you didn't mean to run it because somebody making 12 bucks an hour at a TV station literally put a wrong computer term in, and that was it. The wrong ad ran.

DAVIES: And that's happened in a campaign.

OXMAN: It's happened to us. It's happened to our opponents. It happens all the time.

DAVIES: What you do a lot of is produce 30-second ads. And they're - 30-second TV ads have been the currency of political campaigns - contested political campaigns for decades now. And, you know, I'm somebody who covers campaigns. And I'm often looking at ads that deal with issues that I know something about, or if I don't know, I make it my business to know something about it.

And it's striking how one-sided they are - how ill-informed they sometimes are - how they're distorted or unfair. And I realize that if you - if somebody good wants to get in office and do something good, they got to get elected first. And this is the game they have to play. But I wondered - do you ever feel like, gosh, this is just - we're not doing a very good job of informing our electorate?

OXMAN: Yeah, absolutely. And that's why I wish there were more debates. That's why I'm for term limits. I'm one of the few Democrats that's for term limits. That's why I wish newspapers still existed. That's why I wish there was much more newspaper coverage of substance in campaigns and not process - meaning how much money a candidate has raised and who's up and who's down in the polls - because reporters are way into that instead of looking at somebody's jobs plan or what somebody wants to do about taxes.

But remember, what we're trying to do is persuasion. We're not - you know, we're not doing five-minute long forums where people are going to sort of fall asleep. We're trying to do persuasion no different than any other marketing that you see, whether it's for Pepsi or Ford or Coke or anything else.

DAVIES: Are TV ads still the most effective way to move votes?

OXMAN: Yes. I mean, 10 years ago of course there was no part of a campaign - I mean if you looked at a campaign structure from 10 years ago, you had, you know, a campaign manager, and you had a press secretary, and you had an issues director, and you had a scheduler, and you had a field director, and you had a traveling person. Now you have a whole social media department. And so when you looked at a budget from 10 years ago, there was zero money for social media. Now a legitimate percentage of a campaign is spent on everything around social media.

But the biggest predictor of voting is age. The second biggest predictor of voting, of course, is income - education. But still, in America today, the greatest predictor of how somebody's - if somebody's going to vote is how old they are, which is why in presidential campaigns you get 25 or 30 million more people vote than in the nonpresidential - because people under 30 just don't come out in these bi-elections.

And older people watch TV. They're much more passive about how they get their information. They sit in front of the television. They don't flick away from commercials. They watch TV. Kids today don't watch TV on TV. They watch it on every other thing they can get. They watch it on their phones. They watch on their iPads. They watch it on computers.

But television is still, in most campaigns, the largest single expenditure you'll see in that campaign whether somebody runs for mayor of a big city, congress, governor, senator, or president - maybe not president. But at least those statewide offices and congress will be television and radio expenditures.

DAVIES: So at least for a few more years, people need you. (Laughter).

OXMAN: Hopefully.

DAVIES: You have this life in political advertising. You've done this for decades, but you are also a caddy on the Pro Golf Tour. And for years you've been carrying the bag of the legendary Tom Watson - I mean, a Hall-of-Fame golfer. How did you get started doing this?

OXMAN: It's the way I earned my way through college and law school. I started caddying in the summer of 1972 when I was in college. I caddied in the golf tournament that came to Philly. And I caddied for a guy and he said, what are you doing next week? I said, nothing. He said, well, come to Cleveland and caddy for me in The Cleveland Open. And that's how you started. Caddies were making a $125 a week, and three percent of what a guy won. And the purses were very low. My tuition at college was only 700 bucks a semester, so it actually still did pay for my tuition at college. It was a great way to sort of do it. I have never missed a year caddying since '72.

DAVIES: You haven't stopped. You haven't missed a year since '72.

OXMAN: I've never missed a year caddying at least one term. But there's only two guys on the tour who have caddied longer than I have. Guys have caddied in more tournaments, but I've caddied in almost 500 events on the PGA and Senior Golf Tour.

But it's what I did to earn my way through college and law school. I've essentially - as a friend of mine says, I joined the circus. And I've been able to literally travel around the world, being inside the ropes at golf tournaments, which is by far - to paraphrase Bobby Jones's famous acceptance speech of becoming a Freeman of the burger of Saint Andrews - that he said he could take everything out of his life except what happened to him at Saint Andrews, and feel he had a complete life. I feel the same way about caddying. I could take anything else, including politics, out of my life and feel I had an amazing life, but not for my experience as a caddy on the golf tour.

DAVIES: You know, people think of a caddy as somebody who carries a golf bag. There's a lot more to it. What does the caddy do?

OXMAN: Well, depends on the caddy and the relationship. I mean, you know, you watch TV, and you see the interplay between Jim Mackay, AKA Bones, and Phil Mickelson where they're talking almost every shot about every kind of thing that happens. And then there are guys, as I always described myself to Watson - as just a bag tutor. The biggest thing that caddies do is they give the yardage to the hole to the player.

DAVIES: How do you get to know a course that well?

OXMAN: Well, in the old days you walked the course without a yards book. Today there are men who make yardage books. And if you saw the detail of yardage book, it's really sort of like an architect's drawing of a hole. But usually I get to a golf course a couple of days before Watson - especially if it's a course that he has never played or I've never seen. And you walk the course over and over again. You walk it two or three times, and you do your own measurements, and you make your own little notes on the book so that, you know, any kind of question - he hits the ball in the rough. He can't reach the green. There's a bunker 50 yards short of the green.

There's no reason you'd ever know what that is, but he'll want to know how far it is short to that bunker, because he wants to lay up because he can't reach green. So he'll say what is short of that bunker? I mean, those kinds of things you have to know if you're going to be a caddy at the level where these guys can hit it.

DAVIES: You have done this for many years as an avocation - as a hobby. Guys who do this for a living - I mean, do they go from town to town and share six guys to a hotel room?

OXMAN: No. It's not - when we started, there were sort of three kind of people caddying on the tour. There were kind of the old tour caddies who were the kind of characters that you'd read about who were real gypsies. The other kind - the other caddies who came out to caddy were African-American men who caddied Augusta. Most people don't know that the Augusta National Golf Club where the Masters is held every year closes shortly after the Masters in April, and doesn't reopen again until the fall. So those caddies would come out on the golf tour. And then there were young guys like me who were kind of the first generation of college kids who came out and caddied.

When you were making no money, we'd would have four or six guys stay in a hotel room. We'd literally get in a hotel room - usually four of us. We'd stay in a Days Inn or a Holiday Inn or a Motel 6. I never caddied on tour when Motel 6 was $6.99 a night, but it did when it was a $8.99 a night. And we'd separate the box spring and the mattresses. And we put a sheet on top of the box springs and four of us would stay in a hotel room. That would mean maybe three bucks a night.

That's when the average total purse of a golf tournament was under $150,000. Now the average purse on the PGA Tour is between six and eight million dollars. The PGA - one of the four majors was happening, it was $10 million. And the purses are larger. Caddies are not making $125 a week. I would guess that the average caddy's salary is $1,500 a week plus - you know, 5 to 10 percent of what a player wins. And if you have the top 150 player on tour, you're probably making close to $200,000 a year. So you're not staying six in a hotel room anymore. It's a real profession.

DAVIES: You clearly don't do this - don't need to do this. Why do you keep caddying?

OXMAN: Because, by far, it's the most fun thing I've ever done. I love golf. I love - I mean my real friends in life are people that I grew up with on the golf tour starting when I was a late teenager. It was when I was 19 years old. I mean, these are people that I've known for four - I mean, I've known Tom Watson since 1972. I've known Andy North since 1973. I mean, you know, grew up with the Nicklaus's. I mean these are people that I've grown up with, literally for 40 years. They've watched me go through school - and, you know, now that I'm, you know, older.

But the tour was much smaller - much more intimate. Everybody knew each other then. And, you know, there are 40 or 50 guys who I know who are still playing on the senior tour who, you know, I've caddied for or been around, plus a lot of caddies who are still around and a lot of reporters and people who are still around the game. It was before the world of the Golf Channel, but it was a lot of fun.

DAVIES: Neil Oxman, thanks for coming in.

OXMAN: Thanks, Dave.

DAVIES: Good to talk to you.

GROSS: Neil Oxman is a campaign media consultant and the cofounder of The Campaign Group. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also senior news reporter WHYY.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album by The New Pornographers, whose members include Neko Case. This is FRESH AIR.

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