Flagler County commissioners haven’t discussed it publicly yet–or agreed to it–but the county administration is preparing to host a weekly radio show, or infomercial, on WNZF, the Flagler Broadcasting station, starting likely in February. The sponsored half-hour show would focus on feel-good stories, profiles of county employees, and highlights of county doings.
Borrowing the name from Volusia Today, a community information radio spot Volusia County government has long paid for, the show would be called Flagler County Today and air alongside other sponsored–or self-sponsored–shows and infomercial in the station’s Saturday morning lineup. The county is not paying for the show, which will be sponsored by local businesses, with restrictions on who may and may not advertise: the station will seek what the station’s general manager calls “neutral” advertisers, or advertisers who don;t have business before the county, so advertising isn’t a backdoor way of gifting the county, which would be a potential ethics violation on the county’s part.
Flagler Broadcasting General Manager David Ayres, who also hosts the popular Free For All Fridays that regularly features local government officials, said he approached Jerry Cameron, the county administrator who is in his last months on the job, and proposed the show. “Jerry said he didn’t have the money to do it,” Ayers said–the county has been struggling financially–but that he’d welcome a show that had sponsorships from advertisers.
Ayres said he would not have Joe Mullins, the county commissioner, as one of the sponsors, for the same reason that he would not have other advertisers who are directly involved in county issues sponsor the show–such as major law firms that typically appear before county boards for regulatory hearings and the like. “What I don’t want is where it appears that you’re sponsoring because you’re trying to influence” county officials. “I’m looking for neutral separation.”
Mullins self-pays for an infomercial of his own on WNZF on Saturdays. He has had county employees, including the administrator, with whom he’s particularly close, and the county attorney, on the infomercial, and had the county’s public information officer actually host the show, which raised ethical issues when Mullins at the end of November 2019 sought to make that format more regular. One commissioner at the time, Dave Sullivan, said he’d reimburse the cost of his appearance so as not to appear as if he’d taken a gift. The administration had consulted with an attorney, who advised that appearances on the show would be the equivalent of a gift.
Ayers said the county would also have a say on what advertisers it would approve or not. That could potentially raise a different set of questions as it would place the government in a position to do a form of content discrimination–who’s appropriate, who’s not. A private business like the radio station may do so, but content discrimination for a government is more challenging. It isn’t yet clear how a show sponsored by advertisers but hosted by county employees and focused on county issues would test ethical bounds. Hadeed, the county attorney, could not be reached before this article initially published.
Even when a local government hosts a show on a commercial radio station, the pitfalls aren’t few. Four years ago Palm Coast government teamed up with Flagler Broadcasting to do a weekly radio show, but that the city would pay for–with tax dollars–putting up $110,000 for eight months’ worth of weekly shows. As with the county administrator now, the city manager then (Jim Landon) had not disclosed to council members that the show was in the works, even though its host would be Milissa Holland, who was in her first months as mayor.
Ayers first disclosed the deal on Free For All Fridays. Other council members were not happy about having been in the dark, and the show only featured Holland for a few weeks before it was turned over to other staffers and petered out as they realized that the demands of filling a half hour show every week became too burdensome, Ayers recalled.
The county isn’t lacking for PR outlets: it has its two PR departments–one for its administration and commissioners, one for its tourism bureau, which has a $1.2 million promotional and advertising budget–it issues a drizzle of happy-faced releases every month, often highlighting its own employees’ accomplishments, it has its own YouTube channel, and vast segments of its twice-monthly public meetings are devoted to back-patting its own, though commissioners still occasionally complain that the county’s good stories aren’t getting out.
Ayres hopes the radio gig won’t recycle the same cajoleries. “I want it to be relevant to the people of Flagler County so it’s not inside-girl talk,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not.”