TheNJ 101.5radio debate scheduled later this month was one Frank Lautenberg quickly agreed to – in fact his campaign was the first to confirm its participation.
Could it be that Lautenberg isn't really "ducking debates" as Zimmercharged andthe mediareported? Or is it that Millennium Radio's flagship station hasmatured from Animal House to "Meet the Press"standing in New Jersey politics?
"We'd like to think if someone is running for statewide political office, it's become a right of passage to appear on our station," offered Eric Scott, the station's news director. "We've done a debate in every major political race over the last 15 years.
One of those debates featured a no-show Lautenberg, with his opponent Doug Forrester debating an empty chair.
The station also believes it has the best format for these face-offs and offers the "only true debate" during the election cycle.
In the studio the candidateshave no choice but to get up close – – and sometimes, personal – -with Scott serving as ringmaster.
"There are no notes or briefing papers allowed," said Scott. "We give them a blank notepad and test their knowledge off the top of their head, not what their campaigns have scripted for them."
As for format, the questions come from two sources. The first half is reserved for"real Jersey" callers, unscreened by the station. Next comes the rebuttal segment – this is when the candidates ask each other questions.
"You get a good slice of what's on voters mind that way,and both candidates have to answer the question," Scott noted about the listener participation. As for the talking-directly-to-each-other part, Scott said the candidates understandthat after 30 seconds their opponent's micwill be turned back on and they can jump back into the fray.
"It may have degenerated in the past with the candidates shouting down the other, but even in those cases, it gives you a real perspective into how they conduct themselves," Scott added.
Given newspapers' falling circulation,radio may begin to play an even more prominent role in political reporting. Millennium now staffs bureaus in Bergen, Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth, Ocean, and Atlantic Counties, as well as at the Statehouse.
The station believes its news product reaches more people in a week than every newspaper in this state combined.
As for the upcoming showdown, Scott predicts the listening audience will range from 1.2 to 2.5 million across its network. Its reach will be even bigger if you count the potential for a television simulcast on Channel 12 and access via its web archive.
Of course, the debate itself will be a news event covered not only by Millennium, but by every political reporter in the state.
Maybe NJ 101.5 should move the start time for the debate up an hour earlier. They'd be sure of a captive audience, with most of the listeners trapped in NJ's famous afternoon drive-time traffic jams.
On second thought, the commentary from "real Jersey" callers stuck on the Turnpike or Parkway may violate FTC decency standards!
Debbie Holtz, PolitickerNJ.com's political media columnist, studies and teaches public policy and writing at Rutgers University.