"Radio was all but given up for dead," media analyst Evan Tracey says. "We're going back to the future."
Radio ads are cheap to make and run, and easy to target. Obama and McCain ads run the gamut from stem cell research and taxes to Iraq and trade, on stations aimed at blacks, Hispanics, conservatives, evangelicals, news and sports junkies, and hunters.
As Election Day nears, independent groups are making closing arguments and imploring people to vote. In AFL-CIO ads on urban and Spanish stations in 16 cities, celebrities such as rapper Ludacris advise listeners to bring ID to the polls and stay in line even after closing. The American Federation of Government Employees, in a national buy, urges people to disregard race and gender in deciding their vote.
The NRA is telling gun owners in key states that Obama will take away their rights. The pro-McCain Family Research Council and the pro-Obama Matthew 25 Network (after the Bible verse about being judged on how one treats "the least" among us) are fighting over Obama's abortion views on Christian radio.
The United Auto Workers union is spending $3 million in six states on TV and radio ads about jobs and health care. "Radio is a very good medium to reach people who work for a living, going back and forth to their jobs," UAW spokesman Roger Kerson says.
Northern Virginia, in the Washington, D.C., media market, is a top battleground. Tracey says it costs an average $1,700 to $2,500 to run a 30-second political ad on a network TV affiliate.
A 30-second ad on all-news radio in the same market costs the NRA $500 to $600 per airing, NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam says. The ads run often and "people hear your message more than once," he says.
Interest groups usually publicize their plans, but political radio ads are hard to track. TV ad watchers don't follow them and candidates rarely announce them.
A recent Internet search yielded eight McCain radio spots and 14 for Obama. Obama spokesman Bill Burton called that "pretty far under the mark" but did not provide further details. McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds also said he could not comment on radio strategy.
This approach keeps the other side off-guard and also helps obscure the tone of the ads. They are often negative and sometimes make misleading claims.
McCain, for example, has charged that Obama's tax plans are "a recipe for economic disaster," said he'll raise taxes on just about everyone, accused him of using tax money to "reward his friends" and attacked him (wrongly) for opposing clean coal technology.
Obama has accused McCain of opposing federally funded stem cell research (false) and abortion (true). He has gone after McCain's health care plan and his position on Iraq.
In Colorado, Obama attacked McCain's stand on a water compact. In Ohio, he tried to tie McCain's campaign manager to a threatened plant shutdown. In Milwaukee, he has highlighted McCain's 2004 comment that he'd "hate to live in Milwaukee."
When radio ads are announced, it's usually an endorsement. McCain recently spread word of a Florida ad in which Republican Gov. Charlie Crist calls him "my friend" and says he'll cut taxes.
Among the ads Obama has announced: Indiana musician John Mellencamp vouching for him in Indiana, Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson (a former astronaut) doing the same in Florida, and bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley — against guitar-picking and wailing vocals — telling rural southwest Virginians that Obama is a "devoted husband" who will "cut taxes for everyday folks."
Tracey says many people now use iPods and "radio is suffering." But it's playing an important role in the 2008 campaign, he says, as are traditional network newscasts and anchors: "The old medias at least for this election have made a very strong comeback."