Talk-show host also works for state

WBAL radio's Chip Franklin earned $30,000 over 3 years making ads for Md. Lottery

February 22, 2005|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

WBAL-AM talk-radio host Chip Franklin, who frequently comments on state government - and whose show often provides a friendly forum for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - has been paid more than $30,000 in the past three years to appear in commercials for the Maryland Lottery.

Franklin, who hosts a morning show with about 130,000 listeners a week, receives a $1,500 payment each time he tapes a television commercial for scratch-off lottery tickets in an arrangement that predates Ehrlich's election. He is paid by Eisner Communications, a Baltimore advertising agency hired by the lottery.

Station management and Franklin defend the arrangement, saying it is common for talk-radio hosts, unlike news reporters, to engage in outside advertising because they primarily are considered entertainers.

Media watchers say many politicians - Ehrlich included - increasingly turn to talk radio as a means to speak without a filter to voters in a setting that has the appearance of journalism but lacks the same professional standards of independence and objectivity.

When the host is being paid for work done for a state agency, "I'm afraid he's crossed the line," said Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. The lottery's director and board are appointed by the governor and Ehrlich's picture appears at the top of its Web page.

WBAL station manager Jeff Beauchamp said the arrangement presents no conflict of interest for Franklin. Members of the station's news staff are forbidden from appearing in advertisements, but the station's talk-radio hosts, like most in the industry, frequently do ads.

"Chip is not a journalist in our news department. He is [an opinion] columnist on the air," Beauchamp said. "The other thing is ... how can this possibly be a conflict of interest in the way Chip treats our governor when he originally accepted the offer to be their spokesman for the agency under the administration of [former governor] Parris Glendening?"

Franklin said his arrangement with the lottery has not made him more reluctant to criticize any state officials.

He said he frequently was critical of Glendening's approach to government and recently has taken positions at odds with Ehrlich, such as saying the governor should apologize to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley over the actions of an aide who spread rumors about the mayor's private life.

"I'll say anything that I think is necessary to say," Franklin said.

Role of journalist

Wasserman said that by presenting interviews with the governor, Franklin takes on the role of a journalist, and in that context he cannot ethically do work for the state government. The fact that his show is presented as a forum of opinions, not as objective news reporting, makes no difference, Wasserman said.

"If the politician is being interviewed by, effectively, an employee, the public needs to know that. There is no way you can present that interview as an arm's-length interaction. ... It's one thing to agree with someone out of conviction. It's another thing to be on someone's payroll."

According to WBAL's Web site, Franklin has received several awards for his work. Most of them recognize his ability as a talk-show host, but some are journalism awards, including an Edward R. Murrow award for writing and, with members of the station's news staff, a National Headliner Award for coverage of a breaking news event, a school shooting in Red Lion, Pa.

Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a talk-radio trade magazine, said a talk-show host appearing in commercials for the lottery is "no big deal" by industry standards. News reporters rarely appear in advertisements for anything, much less state government, but television and radio personalities have long appeared in ads because they are primarily considered entertainers.

Public awareness

The key question, he said, is whether the public is aware that the host is paid by the state, and since the commercials in this case are broadcast on television, Franklin's outside employment is no secret, Harrison said.

Last summer, Beauchamp decided that another WBAL personality, Ron Smith, should no longer host the station's Stateline with the Governor, a twice-a-month, hourlong program.

He acted after Smith's wife, June, was hired as a $79,771-a-year public relations officer in the Department of Juvenile Services.

"After learning that Ron's wife had accepted this position, Ron gave us assurances that there was no quid pro quo," Beauchamp said at the time. "But we believe that even the appearance of a quid pro quo - even though we don't believe there is any - is something we should avoid."

While Smith did not receive a paycheck from the state, Franklin is compensated by the state for his services through Eisner Communications. He has earned $31,099.64 so far, according to the Maryland Lottery.

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