A Rural Radio Reporter’s Tips For Messaging To Small Town Voters

Robert Leonard recently spoke with the Polk County Democrats about his experience with reporting about rural Iowa. An occasional New York Times contributor, Leonard explains how candidates of either party should better reach out to local press.

Now that the Iowa state party conventions are over, the next stage of campaigning for elective office begins. Congratulations to all successful candidates of both parties as you seek to communicate to your existing or potential constituencies why you and your party offer the best vision to help move Iowa and our nation forward. To those of you who tried and fell short, thank you for trying. Your efforts are appreciated, and I know you will continue to work to help make our state a better place.

I’m a small town radio guy. I’ve been covering politics, and much, much more for KNIA/KRLS radio in Knoxville/Pella since 2006. It’s been an honor. I’ve interviewed dozens of presidential candidates, and many, many more candidates for statewide and local offices.

Some of these candidates and sitting office-holders who are not currently up for re-election have done a wonderful job reaching out to my part of rural Iowa–Marion County. They have excelled in reaching out to our station staff here in Knoxville/Pella and other stations in the company’s six small town network in central and eastern Iowa. From my reading, it seems that they have done a fine job with local newspapers as well.

Other candidates have done a piss-poor job of it.

I’m not going to name names (not local ones anyway), because I want to help, look to the future, and I think that most of the candidates who have done a poor job simply don’t know how small town media markets work. Many candidates are from our larger media markets, and don’t understand that for the most part small and large media markets are fundamentally different beasts.

Small town media covers things in our communities that large market media can’t possibly do in theirs because of differing scales of coverage. Just like we in small markets can’t do some of the same things our brothers and sisters in large markets do. We in small markets cover every city council meeting and every school board meeting even if the most interesting thing happening in the room is the mayor bending a paperclip. We cover and broadcast breaking news, kids getting scholarships, sporting events, community theater, church events, fire department breakfasts–you name it, we cover it.

If it moves, and we don’t cover it, we’ve thought about covering it.

So, when a candidate comes to a small town, it’s a big deal. Be generous with your time with potential voters who have taken the time to come meet you. Hear their concerns. Listen. Let them know you care. Before you arrive, make plans for one-on-one time to meet with local media. We don’t want to only listen to your stump speech; we want to ask you questions that we know our listeners and readers want asked. You give that courtesy to the big city media, so why not us? If you have sent a press release, or let us know by another means, we’ve already told our listeners or readers you are coming. Why not let us ask the questions we think they want asked? Sure, I’ll report on your stump speech, but I would rather report on our interaction, and put your voice to the story. On radio, your voice tells the best part of it. The human voice is a powerful storytelling instrument. Why not use your own?

Why race through town to your next destination? It’s not the Indy 500, damn it. I suspect some consultant has told candidates that success is measured in terms of miles covered per day, or the number of towns visited. There’s probably some formula written down somewhere. To quote Gwen Stefani, that’s “bananas.” Daily success is instead measured in terms of the number of QUALITY connections you make with Iowa voters–in person and through the media.

Sure, you need a schedule. I understand. But construct that schedule in consultation with the media in the towns you are traveling to prior to the event. I know you do that most of the time with media in the major markets. What are we out here in the hinterlands? Chopped liver?

Of course, that takes the time and energy of a staffer. But what are they for if not to maximize your contact with voters and the media in their markets?

And, while you are at it, tell that staffer sure, social media is important, but the use of social media is preaching to the choir–your followers. Broadcast and print media help add new voices to that choir. Frankly, the probability of one of our listeners or readers actually seeing your Facebook post or tweet is about the same as the town of Red Oak managing to obtain an NFL franchise.

And when your staffer or staffers are in town with you, have them pull their heads out of their phones. Their heads might as well be up their asses for all the good they are doing you. They should be engaging attendees before and after your speech, finding out who they are, why they are there, and what issues are important to them. Maybe even getting their contact information if they are so inclined. Who knows? They might be able to provide some direction to the campaign or a contribution of one sort or another. It’s harder to get people to care about you if you don’t show you care about us.

Besides, your staffers can tweet or post to Facebook or whatever other social media you use in the car during the time it takes you to get to your next destination.

But I digress.

During the run-up to the primary, some of the primary candidates did a great job reaching out to my market, and to other rural markets in the state. You know who you are, and we in rural media thank you. I know you did a better job with our local voters because you reached out. But in my market, if you didn’t speak with me and the editors of our local papers, you blew it. You lost a great opportunity. At the beginning of the primary cycle, I was confident every Democratic candidate for Governor would stop by, meet the public, and give me and our other local media some time, and that every Democratic and Republican candidate for Secretary of Agriculture would as well. I was wrong. It was disappointing. I was looking forward to meeting you, helping you tell your story, and asking the questions I know our listeners want answered.

Am I being egotistical? If you think so, so be it. I don’t care. But I think about it in a different way–to me, if you didn’t reach out to me, and our listeners, you simply didn’t care very much about them. And I bet every good small town media guy or gal feels the same way.

The alternative, of course, is that you were ignorant, and that’s OK. In this instance, ignorance is a problem easily fixed. Reach out to us. Spend some time. Call or email and ask how much time we in the media need when you are here during the planning stages of a visit, so you can plan effectively and maximize your message. I assure you, we won’t delay you long, and it will be well worth the time.

Back when they were candidates, Donald Trump and Barack Obama found time for me and our listeners prior to the election, while Hillary Clinton and John McCain declined interviews. And we all know how that worked out for them.

McCain’s people actually laughed at me when I called–”why, we don’t ‘do’ small market radio!” they chuckled, before hanging up on me. Grrr…

In our meeting, Trump was gracious and informative, and believe it or not, I still have Hope Hicks’ cell phone number.

On July 4, 2007, Barack Obama was at a house in Pella for a campaign rally. By then he was a political rock star on the rise, and media from all over the world were there to cover his campaign. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, ABC–maybe 20-30 media representatives from as far away as China and Germany were in Pella to cover his campaign.

An Obama staffer–I think it was Tommy Vietor of “Pod Save America,” and “Pod Save the World” fame now, pulled myself, Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa, and the then editor of the Pella Chronicle aside, and gave us a half hour alone with candidate Obama in an upstairs room of the home while the big time media cooled their heels outside on the lawn wondering where the hell Obama was.

After our interview was over, I turned to the staffer and asked, “media from all over the world wanted this interview. Why did you give it to us?”

Vietor, or whoever else the staffer was, replied, “because today, in Pella, Iowa, to Barack Obama, you are the three most important reporters in the whole wide world.”


by Robert Leonard
Posted 6/19/18

7 Comments on "A Rural Radio Reporter’s Tips For Messaging To Small Town Voters"

  • Many years ago, my hairdresser and I were surprised when a political candidate entered her shop, introduced himself and shook our hands. It didn’t seem to bother him that my hair had just been shampooed and that she had to dry her hands to shake his hand. Never had that happen again and never forgot it!

  • What Mr Leonard says should be blindingly obvious and a n-brainer to do – and for some reason isn’t. Thinking of a few other politicians whose names I won’t mention…how can you expect to represent your constituents if you can’t find the time or the guts to meet with them and the local press? Answer – you can’t. And you want that vote? It is to laugh.

  • Mr. Leonard gives some good and accurate advice. When I was chair of Carroll County Democrats I did many press releases. Whenever I knew a candidate was coming town or whenever I knew we we going to be having a central committee meeting I would do a press release and make sure our local papers and radio station got a copy of it asap. I would spend my nights at home typing up a press release and the next morning on my way to work I would drop one off at the local radio station and the towns local newspapers. They were always happy to get news. I would also send out a release to each of the county newspapers . I would mail them ahead of time so I knew they would get printed. Our state and district candidates always like coming to Carroll County because they knew they would get good press coverage and possibly an interview with a local reporter. It was also good news for our local candidates. I was always thankful that the central committee was willing to man first class stamps that I used. The early morning radio announcers were always glad to see me coming into their back door as I had a press release they could use almost immediately. The people at the local newspapers were equally as happy. Nowadays it can be easier with e.mails but the personal touch is always important. It is easy to do a press release. If a county chair does not know how to do one, I suggest they contact the right people at their respective state party. Rural Iowa people don’t want to be ignored! Candidates and parties need them to win in Iowa!

  • Bravo! Need to have more columns of this caliber and clarity. Dems lost in ’16 as the good folks in “fly over country(small towns)” felt they were being ignored(and in many cases they were both ignored and looked down upon). We’re in a “post-Clinton” and “post-Obama” party now and at a crossroads as to the future direction of the party.

  • As a rural small town citizen please explain exactly what a post-Clinton post-Obama party is; personally always voted on best policy for the future of my family–packaging means nothing.

    • R. Larson – What I meant by a “post-Obama” and “post-Clinton” Democratic party is that no one from either of their respective families will be seeking the DNC nomination in 2020. It will be the first time since 2004 the party hasn’t had a “Clinton” or an “Obama” on the ticket. Needless to say those two families have dominated the party leadership for quite some time.

      • My response was directed to the continued rhetoric about small town voter’s not being able to discern what messaging on policies from any politician will affect their own family fiscally.

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