BOULDER, Colo. — The sun is hitting the Flatiron foothills like a spotlight and coming in low under the driver’s side visor as a 1970s polyester-suit of a theme song fills the car. “Morning Edition,” National Public Radio’s popular news program, is playing and then pauses for an announcement, which at first sounds like every other kind of public radio announcement, but then takes a turn. It’s a sponsorship message from a group with an unobjectionable name telling you that it is “dedicated to important topics like fracking.”
Welcome to politically charged drilling boom-time in Front Range Colorado, where the information wars on natural-gas hydraulic fracturing have come to public radio.
The message, which has been slightly updated once since it began airing in late January, comes from Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, a public relations organization funded by major oil-and-gas companies Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy. The message plays on northern Colorado’s KUNC radio and is part of a multi-media educational campaign launched by the group last September as residents were pushing back against the heavy industrial activity that had moved into their neighborhoods on the backs of 18-wheeler convoys to set up drill pads, towers and lights in backyards and alongside schoolyards, city parks and playgrounds.
The copy that runs is subtle, but it includes the word ‘fracking’, and in the gas patch that word pricks up ears, especially among the kind of listeners who tune into public radio in part at least because they don’t want to be sold anything, much less oil-and-gas drilling, which is clearly doing bang-up business here:[blockquote]This program is supported by Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, a public education effort dedicated to important topics like fracking and Colorado’s energy, economy and environment concerns. More at ‘study fracking dot com.’ [/blockquote]
An earlier version was a little less subtle:[blockquote]This program is supported by Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, a new public education effort supporting fracking, with information on its energy, economic and environmental effects. Information at C-R-E-D dot org.[/blockquote]
In an election year where the legislature failed in a last-minute effort to address a problem that has been growing for half a decade and where something like 15 citizen ballot initiatives are now lined up looking to rein in residential gas drilling, messaging matters. Analysts estimate that tens of millions of dollars will be spent on advertising in the next four months. Citizens want to know who exactly is speaking to them over the airwaves and journalists are monitoring political advertising as a beat.
KUNC serves an area that stretches north of Denver to the Wyoming border and includes working-class towns like Lafayette and Longmont as well as university towns Boulder and Fort Collins. The station is based in Greeley, ground zero for Front Range fracking. The city’s 95,000 residents have watched over the last half decade as drillers have moved operations from the region’s grasslands and farm-fields into the city itself. According to officials, 76 oil-and-gas companies now operate in greater Greeley. There are 757 gas wells in Greeley proper and the nearby Western Hills Fire District. City planners expect an additional 750 wells to be drilled in Greeley in the coming years.
KUNC’s Robert Leja, director of corporate support and marketing, wouldn’t say how much CRED has paid for its sponsorship, but he explained that it wasn’t a large sponsorship and so far it doesn’t extend to Election Day.
“CRED underwriting airs as part of one our standard underwriting packages and is not tied to any particular program,” he wrote in an email. On the phone he elaborated: “It wasn’t a huge buy. It’s not a major sponsorship. It’s a basic or standard package. They renew their contract regularly.”
The CRED messages live in the gray area that seems to cover most of the campaign finance map in the United States today. CRED is not a candidate or issue committee, not directly advocating for or against any politician or ballot initiative, so it doesn’t have to report donors, and broadcast outlets required by the Federal Communications Commission to list political advertising buys for public review don’t have to list CRED’s ad-time among political airtime purchases. What’s more, the messages at KUNC aren’t technically ads.
“They’re sponsorships,” explained Jackie Purmot, director of corporate support at Colorado Public Radio, which provides news and music content from its headquarters in suburban Denver to a network of 27 local public stations it owns around the state. “Sponsorships are just descriptions of where support is coming from. That’s all. Public radio stations are not a platform for sponsors to address the audience directly with a message. That’s the FCC guideline.”
Purmot said CPR isn’t running sponsorship messages from CRED.
Leja said the KUNC staff engaged in “lots of internal discussion” about the CRED sponsorship.
“We’ve had to modify their copy,” he said. “These can’t be promotional announcements if they’re going to comply with FCC guidelines. So we had to make sure it’s just an informational message.”
Purmot said that didn’t surprise her.
“That’s fairly common. We often re-write sponsorship copy. You have to explain to sponsors that, you know, it’s different. It’s not an ad.”
Leja says listeners have contacted the station about the CRED messages.
“We explain that we think, basically, we don’t have the right to censor anyone, and that we count on our listeners to be open to seeing all sides of an issue and to weigh the merits,” he said.
“We’ve responded to everyone who’s contacted us directly about the spots, and most have understood our position,” he wrote in an email. “There’s a total firewall between our reporters and any underwriters. No one has questioned any of our reporting on the issue.”
The Denver Post, the remaining state paper of record, has drawn criticism for including an “Energy and Environment” section since February sponsored by CRED that lauds fracking as environmentally safe and a major source of job creation in the state. The section closely mirrors the look of the news portion of the Post in both the online and offline editions. Think Progress reported that CRED effectively works with the paper’s advertising department to produce the section, sending story ideas back and forth.
“It’s a supplement,” CRED spokesman Jon Haubert said. “That’s how we think of it… to add to the dialogue.”
Edit note: The description above of Colorado Public Radio has been updated to more accurately reflect its operation.[ Image by LBC Grease. ]