Political Advertising: Radio Wins the Vote

voteThis is the story of how one political candidate harnessed the power of radio advertising to win a competitive election.

Following the death of Washington State Representative Steve Hailey, a former state legislator, Don Cox, was appointed to fill his seat. Cox chose not to run for the open seat in the next election, but five other candidates threw their hats into the ring, one Democrat and four Republicans, among them Hailey’s widow Patricia (“Pat”) and Pullman resident Susan Fagan.

The primary election was to be held on August 18, 2009. Washington being a vote-by-mail state, ballots were sent out at the end of July, giving voters several weeks to make their choice. One of the quirky and somewhat controversial aspects of our primary election is that the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, advance to the general election.

I was drafted to handle the radio advertising for Susan Fagan’s campaign. My recommendation was to start early and advertise consistently. Given the size of our sprawling district – larger than the state of Connecticut – we had several radio markets to cover. The plan was to introduce the candidate, her background, and her qualifications to voters, and then to build the campaign around the endorsements of people throughout the district who knew her and supported her candidacy.

I did not want to use prepared scripts and risk having the individuals sound stilted and artificial, which is often the case when asking people to read from a printed page words that are not their own. Rather, I chose to interview – in person or over the phone – the people whose recommendations might resonate with voters. Most of these interviews lasted from ten or fifteen minutes though some took considerably longer. I’d prepared a list of questions to keep the conversation focused and to elicit meaningful answers, but we kept the conversations open enough so that each individual would feel comfortable sharing his or her thoughts spontaneously and naturally.

As experienced producers know, the greatest challenge and real work is in the editing, deciding which ideas, words and phrases to keep, which ones to leave out, and how best to combine them for clarity and punch. It’s painstaking and time-consuming, often involving hours of work to create a single one-minute spot. But it’s an investment that makes all the difference when it comes to the end result.

We created seven commercials for Susan Fagan’s primary election campaign, considered to be the more important of the two elections because of the number of competitors for the final ballot. The messages went through several revisions and refinements, based on input from Susan and her campaign staff. We aired them sequentially, each running exclusively for several days before being replaced by the next.

Here are three commercials from the series:

Susan Fagan ended up cinching the top spot by a comfortable margin over second-place finisher, Pat Hailey.

One of the ironies of the outcome of this primary race (to me, anyway) was that the candidate who theoretically should have conducted the most effective broadcast campaign, given his background in television journalism, his current position in marketing and communications, and his campaign promise to be, in his words, “your communications warrior” came in a distant fifth of the five candidates. He did his own radio spots, in which he sounded quite confident (some thought maybe even a bit cocky) that he was the man for the job. But his strategy, as embodied by his radio schedule, proved anemic. He ran ads on just two days of the entire campaign: the day the ballots were received in the mail, and again several weeks later on the Monday before the election. By contrast, the top two contenders’ radio campaigns ran throughout the period.

Ultimately, Susan Fagan’s reliance on relentless radio advertising proved the best overall plan. Her main competitor acknowledged as much to the Daily Evergreen newspaper:

Pat Hailey, republican candidate for the 9th District House position, said Fagan is likely in the lead because she spent more money and had an extensive radio advertising campaign.

That November, Susan and Pat squared off in the general election, to determine which of the two would serve for the remainder of Steve Hailey’s term, one year. Susan again relied on radio advertising for her general election campaign. Susan’s message was simple and and straightforward. If she prevailed in the general election, it would be for a one-year term, after which she’d have to campaign again:

“One year from now, you’ll have a chance to evaluate my performance and either hire me for a full 2-year term or send me packing.”– Susan Fagan, candidate for Washington State Representative, from one of her 8 radio commercials prepared for the general election.

She went on to win that election and the following year ran unopposed for the full two-year term. Susan again ran without opposition in the 2012 and 2014 elections.

Susan and her campaign committee were unanimous in their conviction that it was her radio advertising, more than any other single factor, that helped her reach and engage voters, leading to the outcome of the race in her favor. Winning those first crucial elections gave her the opportunity to live up to her campaign promises and Susan went on to serve with distinction until her departure from the legislature in 2014*.

Someone responding to this story on another site asked why we thought radio was particularly effective for Susan’s campaign. My reply was as follows:

1) Radio is pure audio. It allows advertisers to leverage our primary form of communication, human speech, with all its emotional depth and conviction.
2) Radio is intrusive. We hear – even when we’re not listening. “God’s gift to radio is that people are born without ear lids.” – Tony Schwartz  (Paul Harvey noted this, as well.)
4) Radio provides the most affordable frequency in broadcast advertising, and its ROI is superior to that of television. Radio enables an advertiser to reach his prospects repeatedly and over an extended period of time.
5) People are social creatures. We value the opinions and recommendations of others (witness our reliance on user reviews and ratings for a host of purchases). Employing the variety of testimonials conveyed the idea that many knowledgeable people throughout the district were impressed by Susan’s track record in previous endeavors.
6) Websites, blogs, and social media allow a radio advertiser to continue the conversation at greater length and in greater depth. I always recommend when appropriate that my clients use radio to drive traffic to their websites, where visitors can engage them at their convenience any time of the day or night. Radio + website/blog is the most powerful combination in local advertising today, in my experience.

*Susan Fagan’s subsequent resignation from the legislature in 2014 amid allegations of financial improprieties is not germane to this post. Suffice it to say that many local Republicans who know Susan well and are familiar with the machinations of party politics felt she was maliciously railroaded by members of her own party.



Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He became sales manager for the Pullman Radio Group in 1979 and served in that position until 2006. He continues to serve clients in the region as the stations’ senior account executive. Since 1991, Rod and his family have operated Grace Broadcast Sales, providing short-form syndicated radio features to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at PalousePics.com.

About Rod Schwartz

Rod Schwartz backed into a lifelong career in radio advertising in 1973 in Springfield, Illinois. He joined the Pullman (Wash.) Radio Group in 1979, where he worked until his retirement at the end of 2022. Since 1991, Rod and his family have operated Grace Broadcast Sales (GraceBroadcast.com), providing short-form syndicated radio features to radio and TV stations across the U.S. and Canada. Rod also operates an independent advertising, marketing, and communications consultancy for small business owners and professionals, FirstStrikeAdvertising.com. An avid photographer, Rod shares some of his favorite images of the Palouse at PalousePics.com and on his Viewbug gallery.
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