Are We Going To Let Radio Interviews Pass As Town Halls?

This week Roll Call ran two pieces on Congressman Kevin Cramer. The first article stated,  “North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer held the most town halls among members of Congress in 2016 — 164 to be exact.” The article goes on to say it’s made possible because Cramer holds his “town halls” over the radio. People can just go ahead and call in. My question for you is, do radio programs really count as town halls? I don’t think so and let me tell you why.

I’ve been a part of all sides of the question I ask you. I’ve attended town halls as a citizen including former Senator Byron Dorgan in Casselton, and former Congressman Rick Berg in Fargo. That shows I’ve been an observer of individuals whom I agree and disagree with. I’ve participated in a number of town halls and public forums during my time as a State Senator. When it comes to radio, I’ve taken part in “cold call” programming as an elected official where people can call in and ask questions. I periodically host live radio where I encourage people to call in, and I’ve interviewed other elected officials. The two are not the same.

During an actual town hall, you are physically in front of your constituents. They can see your body language which is a large part of effective communication. Sometimes people’s nonverbal communication can be more honest than what comes out of their mouth. A roll of the eyes isn’t heard over radio airwaves.

Can an actual town hall be a bit uncomfortable for an official at times? Damn right. I watched as former Senator Dorgan was shouted at over health care policy. I witnessed former Congressman Rick Berg sidestep questions on his favorable view of privatizing Social Security. I was confronted by an individual who had mineral ownership about my stance on oil taxes in 2015.

Want to see what an actual town hall can look like? Here is a video recap of Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s town hall on February 9th from CNN:

Notice how Chaffetz stood uncomfortably on stage as his constituents chanted in unison? He looked into their eyes as they booed him for his posturing on President Trump. This public exchange wasn’t confined to a radio show; it was circulated on other news outlets. Perhaps this will have an impact on his future actions.

Cramer’s preferred format, on the other hand, can allow for him to be more guarded. An angry constituent calls in to tell you exactly what they think of your secret vote to eliminate ethical oversight of Congress? Drop the call, cut them off, pivot to another topic. Have a certain narrative you want to push on this week’s “radio town hall?” Have your campaign manager, which in this case is Congressman Cramer’s wife, line up supporters to call in and lob softball questions.

I’m not saying the above scenarios have been implemented by Congressman Cramer, but they are possible. How are we to know it isn’t the same handful of individuals calling in each week to ask the Congressman a question? We can’t view the exchange like in an actual town hall.

Cramer goes on in the article to explain how he makes it work in his schedule, “On hearing days, I’ll step out and do it on my cell phone,” he said. “Especially if it’s a markup or something, I’ll literally go in and out.” I’m curious how many votes, committee hearings, and meetings Cramer has missed or only given half of his attention to step out and hop on a friendly radio show to take a couple of calls.

A follow-up article published by Roll Call on the next day insinuated this would be a platform for Cramer to use if he decides to run against Heitkamp in 2018. Expect to see these articles cited in campaign literature for whatever race Cramer decides to run.

Kudos to Congressman Cramer for wanting to be accessible in some fashion even if it is on friendly airwaves. Don’t get me wrong, I love the medium of radio. It is effective. Why else would I enjoy hosting and communicating with listeners? I simply contest what some are claiming to be “town halls” aren’t actual town halls. I bring it forward so when the Congressman uses this as a self-promoting campaign talking point in 2018 we know to put an asterisk next to it. Like in sports, it is padding his stats.

Tyler Axness
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