Back-scratching in Annapolis $500,000 deal: Governor, legislators give friendly Radio One stations a financial boost.

December 23, 1997

IT NEVER HURTS to have friends in high places. And it never hurts to say a few friendly words on behalf of your friends -- especially if you run talk-radio stations. Or turn over valuable air time on a weekly basis to your supporters in the legislature.

That policy has now paid off handsomely for the owners of Radio One, which runs stations in Baltimore and Washington catering to African Americans. It gives two powerful state senators regular air time. And the stations' on-air personalities have had nice things to say about Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who happens to be running for reelection next year.

It didn't hurt, either, that Senate President Mike Miller took up Radio One's cause, perhaps to help a fellow Prince George's senator, Decatur Trotter, who is a vocal supporter of the $500,000 aid package. He's also a frequent radio commentator, as is Sen. Larry Young of West Baltimore. In turn, Radio One talk-show hosts ardently defend Mr. Young against allegations of possible wrongdoing.

The result: A classic example of political back-scratching. The governor and lawmakers paved the way for a $500,000 grant for Radio One, thus assuring many more kind words for themselves on the talk-radio airwaves before next year's election. Republicans and some conservative Democrats railed against the proposal, but to no avail.

Does this now open the door to a similar government handout to conservative talk-radio stations if a Republican becomes governor next year? Will other media outlets seek assistance in the name of "economic development" and promises of a few kind words for the politicos who dole out the money?

It sets a bad precedent. The money comes from the state's Sunny Day Fund, set up in 1988, according to legislative briefing papers, "to act on extraordinary economic development proposals that require financial assistance beyond the capability existing state and local financing programs." It was never envisioned as a political slush fund.

Even on its fiscal merits, this is a marginal deal. Radio One has already moved from Washington, D.C., to Prince George's County. The company plans to lease to others, not occupy, most of the $4.5 million office building that it wants to buy with the help of the state loan. Only 40 new jobs may be created.

Compare this to other Sunny Day ventures, such as money to keep McCormick & Co. from building a distribution building in Pennsylvania, to persuade Saks Fifth Avenue, Rite Aid and Staples to build their warehouses in Maryland, to persuade Bethlehem Steel to build a cold-rolling mill at Sparrows Point.

Similar-sized loans approved last week offer far greater pay-offs. For instance, a $425,000 loan to DAP Inc. will mean a corporate headquarters in Baltimore and 135 new jobs. Wood Products Inc. got a $350,000 loan to expand manufacturing in isolated Garrett County, saving 90 jobs and creating 50 new ones.

These are straight-forward business loans, without a political component. That's not the case with the Radio One deal -- although we know our opposition to the administration's grant to Radio One will be misconstrued by some as racist.

Business and economic development secretary James T. Brady gamely defended the proposal, but he conceded it was unusual. Senate President Miller said it sent a "symbolic" message to African Americans "that they do have a place at the table." He neglected to say that first they must have something valuable to give politicos in return for a chunk of the public's money. That places an unfair burden on African American business owners, and an even more unfair burden on taxpayers.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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