Christian radio website to maximize hosts' heft

A senior aide from President Bush’s 2004 campaign has crafted a multimedia strategy for the Christian broadcasting giant Salem Communications to maximize the political power of its conservative talk-radio hosts.

Chuck DeFeo, who was Bush-Cheney ’04’s e-campaign manager and served in a similar role at the Republican National Committee in 2002, is helping Salem promote activism among listeners.

Next week, Salem is expected to launch a website featuring the hosts of five major radio talk shows: “Morning in America” with Bill Bennett, “The Mike Gallagher Show,” “The Dennis Prager Show,” “The Michael Medved Show” and “The Hugh Hewitt show.” These are estimated to attract more than ten million listeners, DeFeo said in an interview.

His new website, beyondthenews.com, is intended to give the hosts “an online platform to move from radio to Internet to get active.”

The purpose is to build a powerful online activist community from the large nationwide audience of conservative radio listeners. Political observers say Democrats have thus far been more effective then Republicans at using the Internet to raise money and mobilize supporters.

George Washington University’s Institute for Politics found that more than half of Democrats made political contributions, more than twice the proportion of Republicans.

But Republicans have also had some success using the Web politically.

DeFeo, who is the director of online strategy for Salem Web Network, noted that during the 2002 election radio host Hugh Hewitt encouraged listeners to give money to the Senate campaign of John Thune (R-S.D.), who was running against then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Thune’s campaign credited Hewitt’s call to action with generating a “couple hundred” thousand dollars in a few days, DeFeo said.

Organizers of the effort regard talk radio as a “one-way street” where a host urges listeners to do something but receives little feedback from the audience. The website would combine the established power of talk radio with the emerging phenomenon of blogging to create a “two-way street” that would allow radio personalities and fans to interact more.

Plans for the new site, however, may be affected by how the Federal Election Commission decides to regulate political activity on the Internet. The agency is scheduled to vote on adopting new regulations Thursday.

Republican and Democratic party aides frequently work with conservative talk-radio hosts to book party leaders and lawmakers on shows and to circulate talking points. But helping those hosts organize calls to action is unusual, and organizers of Salem’s effort do not know of any prior effort to link several major radio personalities through one website to enhance their ability to influence the grass roots.

Salem Communications is the largest Christian radio network in the country, and the third largest overall, after Clear Channel and CBS Radio. Salem is also the largest provider of Christian content on the Web, DeFeo said.

The new website will give listeners “blogging tools, free podcasts, opinion columns and the ability to influence key lawmakers on conservative ideas,” according to a description of it provided by organizers.

Rush Limbaugh, perhaps the most prominent conservative talk-radio host in America, will not participate in the effort because his show is syndicated by Premier Radio Networks and is not part of the Salem network.

Listeners who visit beyondthenews.com will be able to create their own blogs and e-mail newsletters and vote on the columns and blogs of the radio hosts and conservative guest commentators. They will also be able to download the radio programs to their computers or mp3 players, like Apple Computer’s popular iPods. So-called podcasts are catching on among conservative leaders: Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, a caucus of about 100 conservatives, announced the launch of “Pence’s Podcast” on his website.

Republicans captured Congress in the mid-’90s because of the rise of conservative ideology across the country that radio talk-show hosts played a large role in promoting. Forward-looking Republican leaders such as Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House GOP conference, say that political blogs can be as effective tools of communication as radio shows, and the view is spreading on both sides of the aisle.

During the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and other leaders held exclusive briefings for conservative bloggers. And during the race for House majority leader, the candidates, Reps. John Boehner (R-Ohio), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and John Shadegg (R-Ariz.), held conference calls exclusively for conservative bloggers.

DeFeo and executives at Salem hope that their new Internet strategy will combine the political power of blogging and radio to affect the political debate.

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