In these elections, the airwaves are for sale

Part Two of the report examines the special deals and packages offered by radio stations to candidates. For a set price (usually in the millions of pesos), a candidate can be assured of full coverage by a radio network during the entire campaign. The report quotes campaign managers as well as radio station managers who describe the practice and try to justify it in some way. They say such packages put a stop to “retail” corruption — i.e. cash being given to individual reporters — and reimburse the networks for expenses incurred in the coverage of a campaign.

CAN ELECTIONS really be an even battleground?

That is a question that campaign strategists and media organizations have to grapple with, given the caps on election spending and the limits set by the Fair Elections Act on campaign advertising and media exposure.

In this election, as in the 1998 presidential polls and the 2001 senatorial race, radio networks are striking million-peso deals with campaign managers that allow candidates and parties to circumvent legal limits on advertising and media exposure. These deals involve “commercial packages” offered to candidates that include a guaranteed number of press releases, daily interviews, and rally coverage aired on the networks concerned.

These packages cleverly fuse paid-for political ads, which are allowed by election laws, with common newsgathering methods that are not supposed to have a price. The problem is that they deceive the listening audience who are led to believe they are hearing legitimate news, not paid-for press releases.

In the last decade, the media — especially TV and radio — have become crucial ingredients in political campaigns. Political analysts and campaign insiders say that at present, one-third of the campaign budget goes to the media. As media costs rise, campaigns have also become even more expensive and more innovative, prompting candidates to seek ways that will give them more bang for their buck.

These have included the “wholesale” deals they strike with a few enterprising broadcast outfits, even as “retail” arrangements between some politicos and many individual journalists persist. The result is not only the violation of the Fair Elections Act, which limits election spending by candidates and parties, but also the continued corruption of the media.

Top advertising executive and Raul Roco supporter Yolanda Ong, for instance, says that in 2001, the People Power Coalition (PPC) spent about P87 million on TV ads alone. But, she adds, the “unreceipted amounts were four to five times more.”

That same year, the PPC spent roughly P2 million to P3 million a month on one radio station alone, recalls a campaign insider. The amount covered the PPC’s entire senatorial slate and included arrangements for radio spots and interviews for a set fee.

Insiders say the “commercial packages” offered by some radio stations first evolved as a means to circumvent the political ad ban that was lifted only in 2001. Originally designed as an option for candidates who wanted access to the airwaves without resorting to direct advertising, such packages have remained part of the menu offered to candidates even now that the ban has been lifted.

In the beginning, the entry of political ads resulted in roughly a 10-percent annual increase in billings, according to Ruperto Nicdao Jr., president of the Manila Broadcasting Company that operates the radio giant DZRH. But, he adds, “it’s picking up now because it’s a tight contest. In 2001, there was no mad scramble at the end of the campaign. Now there is that mad scramble especially for the ‘senatoriables,’ because the eighth to 16th slot are up for grabs. They are jockeying for ‘top-of-mind’ awareness.”

ABS-CBN vice president for news and public affairs Ricardo Puno says they got only insignificant “incremental revenue” in the early part of the campaign. But TV insiders say that the last-minute scramble for advertising is evident in television as well.

The first time some radio stations tried to circumvent the ad ban by offering candidates “commercial packages” was in 1998. Despite the lifting of the ban, however, these radio stations are offering the same packages they did in previous elections.

Ong, group chairperson of advertising agency Campaigns and Grey, says that one radio station has offered some candidates — among them Ong’s client, Raul Roco — P20-million packages to cover the 90-day campaign. Ong was told similar offers were made to at least two senatorial candidates and two other presidential contenders.

The contract guaranteed three interviews a week, call-ins that are favorable to the candidate, an “embedded” reporter, and a package of radio ad spots. Though supposedly a contract, the offer did not come with an official receipt.

When she complained about what she thought was an irregular deal to a columnist, the radio station brought the price down to P11 million and offered to give her a receipt. Ong refused to approve the deal.

But Nicdao sees nothing really wrong with such an arrangement. He says that DZRH itself offers candidates a package of discounted radio ad spots and a reporter to cover rallies, particularly the miting de avance or proclamation rally.

He estimates that the station would need about P200,000 to cover production costs, airtime, and a two-hour miting de avance coverage.

“It’s an arms-length commercial transaction,” says Nicdao, who is also president of the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster sa Pilipinas. “We provide the facilities…I don’t think this is unethical or in violation of the ethics code. This is equal opportunity for everybody…It serves a social purpose: to inform the public about what candidates are espousing.”

Considering the cost of placing a political ad, these packages are tempting to candidates. DZRH commands P20,000 per 30 seconds for political ads. A 30-seconder on prime time TV, meanwhile, can drain a candidate’s wallet of as much as P230,000.

A candidate running for national office would need “at least P28 million” for national coverage in about five key radio stations located in major vote-rich areas, according to Nicdao’s rough estimates.

The Fair Elections Act allows candidates seeking a national post 180 minutes for each radio station and 120 minutes for each TV station, subject to the limitations on campaign expenses set by the Omnibus Election Code. The Code says that a candidate may spend no more than P1.50 for every registered voter within his or her jurisdiction. The same cap is set for spending by political parties.

The Act also mandates TV stations to offer candidates a 30-percent discount and radio 20 percent over average rates charged during the first three quarters of the year preceding the elections.

Even if a candidate were to follow the law’s limits on spending, he or she would be spending a maximum of P5.76 million per radio station if the ad were run for the entire duration of the campaign. A TV ad campaign may mean up to P82 million per station (180 minutes at P230,000 per 30 seconds).

Out-and-out ads, however, simply do not have the same impact on listeners or viewers as a news piece that sings praises of a candidate or an interview that allows a politico to go on and on without much challenge from anyone.

It would therefore not be surprising if the commercial packages offered by some stations have many takers.

Aside from DZRH, Radio Mindanao Network or RMN also offers various package proposals that include, among others, a certain number of interviews, radio spots, a number of press releases a month, and jingle playbacks.

A candidate can opt for a nationwide, already discounted P5-million package or a lower nationwide P2.5-million package to cover a month’s campaign only.

The actual cost of the P5-million package is over P21 million, an RMN proposal says, accounting for a 76-percent savings. This includes four 30-second spots a day for one month in the station’s satellite news program that is aired simultaneously in 30 AM and FM stations.

In addition, a candidate is supposed to get two interviews a month aired on the nationwide news program and eight interviews a month on any provincial station of choice. Plus, the candidate gets eight press releases a month on the nationwide news time slots — “this is an opportunity to mention the candidate’s accomplishments as a news item,” the pay-before-broadcast proposal says.

A candidate is likewise entitled to 12 press releases a month in “Pila Balita,” an hourly newsbreak of RMN Manila, two features in the station’s “Know Your Candidate” segment that will include a two- to three-minute interview, 80 jingle playbacks for a month across all its 22 FM stations nationwide, “one liner in a month in all FM stations,” and one interview in all its FM stations.

RMN-Davao also sent several presidential candidates a proposal itemizing a P30,000- “media mileage” package. It covered a 15-minute evening interview, two spots a day for 15 days of “Araw ng Davao” greetings, and “air plugs through ad lib from jocks” in the morning and afternoon or evening.

Ely Saludar, RMN Manila’s OIC station manager, says the network’s account managers package the deals so they could offer something more attractive to their clients. But he justifies the arrangements, saying, “We’re just doing what is allowed by the Comelec (Commission on Elections).”

Less well-known networks have taken the cue from the bigger stations. The ironically named The Credible Media Network or CMN, for example, has a P3.78-million package that covers its 29 provincial stations.

The most expensive among the six deals it offers candidates, the package includes 360 30-second radio spots per station for the entire campaign period, press releases or at least thrice a week regular interviews of the candidate or his spokesperson between Monday to Saturday at prime time hours with a 24-hour notice, response interview in case of negative issues, and live coverage by a local CMN station in case of on-site campaigns.

The proposal specifies that a candidate provide the newscast feeds, “call or arrange to be called during the designated prime time hour to avail of the interviews and call-in reply to issues.”

Asked about what he thought of such “wholesale” trading in airtime, Mike Enriquez, senior vice president for radio operations and president and CEO of RGMA (which manages GMA-7 stations in provincial areas), goes only as far as commenting, “These packages are part of free enterprise. We could do it if we wanted to but we choose not to.”

“They’re not something we live or die for,” he adds. “We have our own share of political business.”

Such a stance may perhaps be expected of a network as huge and as profitable as GMA-7. Unfortunately, some people with questionable media credentials now also want a share of the wholesale trade.

Some supposed journalists, for example, have been offering “tri-media” services — an approach also used in previous elections and resurrected this year. Just this February, a group calling itself the Minsupala Integrated Journalists Association Inc. submitted a proposal to one of the presidential candidates.

Composed of newspaper publishers, columnists, reporters, TV station managers, newscasters, and radio broadcasters from Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan, the group offered a package price of P3.72 million. In exchange, the candidate would get radio coverage up to election day, a maximum of three three-minute stories a week for 12 weeks on local TV, and special supplements about his or her platform and various accomplishments in the papers of the group’s member-publishers.

The allotted take for the eight radio broadcasters in the group was about P150,000 each, while a local TV news anchor was to get P360,000. The nine newspaper publishers who made up the rest of the group, however, were to collect the remaining P2.16 million.

All these, however, have not put a stop to the retail side of the broadcast media’s shady dealings. Campaign insiders say that retail media financing, particularly for radio, remains heavy, especially for Visayas and Mindanao. For provincial sorties, say insiders, an hour’s air time would cost between P10,000 to P20,000, covered by a contract. For live coverage, the anchor gets P2,000 while the reporter gets P500.

One political operator estimates that at the local level, a high of P70,000 covers expenses for a rally, six interviews at the rally, plus a press conference. The presscon facilitator — usually from the local media — gets P5,000.

For simple rally coverage, some radio reporters get P1,000, as do cameramen and their assistants. The rates triple for out-of-town coverage.

To control coverage and keep it from going negative, six-month to one-year retainer agreements are forged with some broadcast people. On-board radio commentators can get from P10,000 to P20,000 a month, the operator says.

These are all part of the “goodwill” political camps try to build and maintain all the way to election day.