PRWeek: So far you¹ve been to Iowa and New Hampshire. What¹s the atmosphere like on the ground?
Joe Mathieu: New Hampshire was seriously a carnival. Honestly, I've never seen anything like it, and I've covered New Hampshire before. There was just something different this time, and I think it's partly because this race is so tight. Also, there's a real sense when you talk to voters and campaign supporters that this is the most important election of their lives and they have a real personal interest in this. So the supporters are out in force, they were organized, they were on the ground, they were holding rallies. The street was full of them and you'd see these roving bands of supporters and they'd see each other and gather into these impromptu rallies of hundreds of people. Some of them were confrontational, some were friendly, all of them, in my opinion, were very effective. It really did bring a festival-like atmosphere to the whole process.
We were broadcasting from the Radisson Hotel in downtown Manchester, which is where most of the big networks were. The hotel itself became a tourist attraction. By the time we got to Monday, the day before the primaries, the hallways were filled with gawkers looking for media celebrities, campaign staffers, the candidates themselves. It really made fantastic radio. All you had to do was sit in front of the microphone for a while, set the scene, and it was some of the best stuff we've ever done.
PRWeek: I would think that might be a distraction.
JM: We never stop doing the news. We did make up a series of candidate profiles that we launched in time for Iowa and, unfortunately, we're taking some off the air as candidates drop out of the race. But we didn't break programming, we still did the news, we still ran the polling results, we still did election coverage. We're a long-form commercial-free channel with 24 hours of programming to fill. We don't break for traffic and weather and sports [etc]. So there's a lot of time to do all that stuff.
And when you can bring people the sights and sounds and flavor of where you are, that's really what radio is all about. We don't have video and b-roll to show people. We only have a microphone and talented storytellers. And when you're put in a place where stuff is happening, it really makes for super programming.
PRWeek: Has it been hard to find enough material?
JM: You might think it would [be], especially since radio is such a short-form medium. I come from all-news radio at the network level where no sound cut is more than 10 seconds and no story is longer than 30 seconds.
But for us it's a luxury to be able to sit back and have an in-depth interview 15 or 20 minutes long and not have to worry about playing a commercial. I'm personally having more fun than I've ever had for the very reason you would think it would be hard.
We're very interested in the process, we're loving the subject matter, and when you just open the gate and let us run, it's liberating.
PRWeek: What are some of the challenges of being on radio, particularly satellite radio?
JM: In terms of radio versus television, I've been doing radio since before I could drive, actually. As a medium, radio really has an intimacy that's really difficult to duplicate on television. When you're podcasting or broadcasting on satellite or terrestrial radio, the spoken word has a way of connecting with people that's very hard to find in any other medium. You're either in an ear bud, a headphone, or in someone's car. It's a very personal setting.
Despite this 24-hour media cycle and all the cable channels and Web sites in the world, when I hear from listeners, they're actually having a very difficult time understanding where the candidates stand on issues and what it is that makes them different from one another. So we have an opportunity to really drill down and really speak with people in a personal way, understand what they're looking to hear about and deliver on that message.
Based on the feedback, we're really succeeding in that way, and really filling a void that quite frankly the rest of the media is leaving open for us.
PRWeek: Who is the average listener?
JM: We're still learning that ourselves. Obviously the political junkie because that's what we're talking about, but I'm getting more feedback from people who are finding us because they've bought a car with an XM radio in it, and folks who are loyal XM listeners and have found this new channel.
They're coming from all corners.
A lot of our listeners believe that these issues (the Iraq War, the housing recession, etc.) are touching their lives, and believe that the decision that they're going to make in November 2008 will have a direct impact on the outcome of these issues. I think we're crossing a wide spectrum on this channel.
PRWeek: Have you been finding it hard to stay non-partisan?
JM: I have not. I'm a news guy and I go straight down the middle. You will never hear our hosts give an opinion or say something non-partisan on the air. We do have programs that come from various perspectives. Part of our mission quite frankly is to expose both sides of the story and political spectrum to allow all people to go away and come up with their own conclusion. We've partnered with a lot of interesting folks from The Heritage Foundation to The Washington Monthly, [etc] and we make it very clear on the air that those are not necessarily the opinions of the XM or the POTUS '08 staff. But if you're going to understand what's going on, you have to hear from all sides of the story.
PRWeek: What's been your interaction with PR professionals so far?
JM: We have a lot of interaction with them. It's not always exactly what we're looking for because we like to go directly to the source as often as possible. That's not to say we don't have good relationships with PR folks.
And our producers do book a remarkably large number of guests every day. We've done well with connecting to authors and people directly related to the issues.
PRWeek: What are some of your tips for PR professionals?
JM: Just understand the story before you call. We get a lot of pitches that are totally irrelevant or out of left field. On the other hand, we're not NBC News. We're not ABC News, and we do attack this a little differently than the major networks. We are XM, and we are a little bit of an alternative source, so we do like to do stories that you wouldn't hear anyplace else. My experience doing news and interacting with PR pros, it's always the same thing: know who you're contacting before you get in touch.
Blanket e-mails typically don't get much traction over here. But if you're familiar with the programming, you'll probably get a lot further than you would otherwise.
PRWeek: POTUS will stop airing in Jan 2009. Any advance feelings about when this will come to an end?
JM: We have our own designs and hopes for what the channel will become after the election, whether that's an all-news channel or a Washington-centric political channel or a talk channel of some sort. My goodness, we haven't even come through the primaries yet and it's already been four months. But XM has a long history of doing microchannels. Some of them last a day, so this is basically a big microchannel that lasts over a year. I'm glad that we have the luxury of time to figure out what to do next.
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