On talk radio, Rick Scott finds an audience

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott is in "Heaven."

He adjusts the headphones, clears his throat and pulls closer to the microphone in the studios of WHBT-AM, "Heaven 1410."

In a half-hour at the obscure gospel station, Scott talks about his favorite foods and what it's like to be rich after growing up poor — all while avoiding questions about his controversial policies that aim to create jobs by increasing corporate profits.

For a governor who is about as popular as the summer humidity, radio appearances like this are as close to paradise as he'll find outside his faithful inner sanctum.

In the past four months, Scott has been on the radio more than 130 times, including 10 appearances last week.

That's more than all of his other pre-scheduled media interviews combined.

In politics, TV appearances drive poll numbers up and down. And television coverage is often influenced by print media.

But for Scott, it's the radio that gets most of his attention.

"These are fun," Scott told the Times/Herald after the gospel show.

He recalls his appearances like a college grad boasting about the stops on a European back-packing trip.

"We've done country-western. We did sports. We've done a lot of talk radio. I've done top 40," Scott said, staring into the distance trying to remember it all.

"I haven't done classic rock, right?" he asks the media handler at his side. "I talked with a guy who had a hip-hop station. . . . I had my picture taken with him."

Scott has indeed run the gamut of genres on both the AM and FM dials, including time on the public radio stations (despite slashing their income with a state budget veto).

But Scott spends most of his airtime on conservative talk shows, where hosts lob friendly questions and get the best access.

On a recent morning show on WNRP 1620-AM in Pensacola, listeners heard host Rob Williams search for a topic.

"Let's see," Williams says. "There was a couple other things. Oh yeah, by the way where's my veto pen?"

A month earlier on the same show, Scott promised Williams one of the pens he used to veto a record amount of spending from the budget.

Scott laughs.

"I'll get you your veto pen," he says.

During an interview on WIOD 610-AM in South Florida, host Jimmy Cefalo asks Scott about a potentially embarrassing subject: the self-praising form letter on Scott's website that Scott wants supporters to send newspaper editors.

Scott turns the conversation back to cutting unemployment.

Cefalo lets the question drop.

"You told us what you were going to do and you're doing it," he says instead.

Compare that appearance with Scott's interview Wednesday on CNN, where hosts seemed eager to ridicule Scott for his position that Congress should not raise the debt ceiling.

"Why is this difficult for you to understand, governor?" Ali Velshi said to Scott.

Conservative talk can come with pitfalls. Mike Haridopolos, then a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, was mocked this summer after a host hung up on him for failing to answer a Medicare question.

But generally, the forum gives conservatives an easy platform to deliver their unfiltered message. Republican Marco Rubio, for example, harnessed conservative media to create buzz about his once unlikely U.S. Senate campaign.

"The governor loves to go places where people want him to talk about his message," said Brian Burgess, Scott's communications director. "He wants to have a discourse that is civil, and that forum generally affords him that opportunity."

Republican consultants give Scott high marks for his use of the radio.

The talk shows let Scott reach his core of conservative supporters, who, like liberals and moderates, are still unsure about the state's new leader.

"He's got some work to do with some elements of the Republican Party," said GOP consultant Randy Nielsen, who recently polled Scott's popularity. "But he's got plenty of time before the next election.

"If we're having this conversation two years from now, then he's really got to do some soul searching," Nielsen said.

Most of Scott's appearances are less than 15 minutes, a relatively small investment of time, which offsets concerns that few people are listening.

The South Florida station, 610-AM, is the 20th-most listened-to radio station in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, according to Arbitron. In Pensacola, there are 21 stations with more listeners than 1620-AM.

The gospel station in Tallahassee has fewer listeners than almost any other in the city.

Continuous appeals to the base will help avoid the same mistakes as former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was eventually run out of the Republican Party.

"The folks who listen to AM radio, on both the left and the right, never tire of hearing people agree with them," said Mac Stipanovich, a Florida Republican consultant.

By sticking to his talking points, Scott rarely tells the AM shows anything different than he says inside the Capitol.

Scott occasionally makes news on the radio shows, but the unpolished politician tends to make more flubs.

He said recently on the radio, incorrectly, that Florida was the only state to cut taxes this year. "We don't know where that came from," spokesman Lane Wright said.

The breezy interviews also let Scott introduce himself to listeners. He only moved to the state in 2003 and was never involved in a political campaign before his own.

On the gospel channel, he talked about waking up at 5 a.m. to work out, that his favorite meal would include lobster bisque and smoked salmon and remembered how, as a young man, he stopped at the laundromat to take hangars he was too poor to buy.

"You've been a successful businessman. A billionaire?" radio host Jay Green asked. "Is it a 'B' yet?"

Scott closed his eyes and shook his head. "We never talk about those things."

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com.

On talk radio, Rick Scott finds an audience 07/31/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 31, 2011 10:36pm]

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