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WBOY to grant free air time for candidates

by Allison Barker

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

CHARLESTON -- One West Virginia television station has joined the CBS national network in promising to set aside several minutes a day for political candidates to talk about issues -- for free -- during the last month of the general election campaign.

WBOY-TV, an NBC affiliate in Clarksburg, announced Tuesday it will offer 312 minutes of free airtime during its 5:30 p.m. newscasts starting Oct. 16.

The offer was extended to candidates for the U.S. Senate, 1st and 2nd congressional districts and governor, said Gary Bowden, WBOY's general manager.

The station has modified a recommendation made by a presidential commission two years ago to provide 5 minutes of air time for 30 days before an election. Last week CBS promised to offer free time on its network and on stations it owns.

Still, the commission's recommendation has largely been ignored. Only 65 of about 1,300 local TV stations have committed air time, said Paul Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns in Washington, D.C., a group promoting the proposal.

"I think it is important to indicate that this is an idea that came from the industry itself to avoid mandated air time," Taylor said. "Our frustration is that just 5 percent of local stations indicated they will try to meet it. The idea that they are the exception to the dreary rule is disappointing."

Bowden said his station did not make the decision to participate under duress, but did look into the idea more seriously at the urging of the alliance.

"The snippets that people get in a 30- and 60-second commercials don't necessarly divulge a great deal about the candidates and the issues," Bowden said. "My feeling was here, and at other stations in their earlier newscasts, there is lighter fare we felt we could pre-empt for a few weeks for something we view as more beneficial than seeing the E! entertainment report."

Ellender Stanchina, president of the League of Women Voters and co-coordinator of the West Virginia Alliance for Better Campaigns, said she visited every commercial television station that serves West Virginia and was rebuffed.

"The biggest problem is that they think we are trying to tell them how to do their programing," Stanchina said. "But I think they owe the public. The public needs to be informed so they can be informed voters. The airwaves belong to the public. They do not belong to the TV stations."

Managers for many stations say they decided against offering free time because they already provide extensive political coverage through their news departments.

"We work pretty hard to include candidates in our daily programs," said Hugh Breslin, general manager of WHAG-TV in Hagerstown, Md. "Historically, we have had a difficult time getting incumbents to participate in forums but no trouble at all attracting challengers."

Such programs don't work without full participation, said Ed Groves, general manager for WCHS-TV in Charleston and WVAH-TV in Hurricane.

Instead, he said stations statewide agreed to carry a gubernatorial debate between Gov. Cecil Underwood and U.S. Rep. Bob Wise, the Democratic nominee, on Oct. 18.

Other media companies that have agreed to the five-minute segments include Hearst-Argyle Broadcasting, E.W. Scripps Co. and Capitol Broadcasting, Taylor said.

On the net:

Alliance for Better Campaigns: http://bettercampaigns.org

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