Last night on Twitter, Voice of San Diego's Rob Davis posted a link to a puff-piecey video clip about a local medical imaging and radiology center from Scott, BR + Amber, the centerpiece of the U-T San Diego's new television station. Davis asked, "Anyone know whether this company is a U-T advertiser?"
We'll leave Davis to get to the bottom of it, since so far he's done a fine job covering covering U-T San Diego's rapid degradation under its new owners. But we can say one thing: the U-T's new CEO's previous media venture sold on-air positive interviews to a government agency as part of a marketing package.
CityBeat readers will remember the saga of the San Diego County Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies, or SD SAFE, the agency tasked with maintaining the county's emergency roadside call box system. SAFE had built up an enormous slush fund over the years by continuing to collect a $1 fee on vehicle registrations, even as the need for call boxes decreased with the rise of cellular-phone technology.
One of the most alarming parts of the narrative was the amount of money doled out to local PR firm, Berkman, to promote SAFE through publicity stunts, an expensive website and Padres tickets giveaways. Berkman also made media buys for SAFE with print and broadcast outlets. We obtained those contracts and one in particular stood out.
Before John Lynch became the CEO of U-T San Diego, he made his name building up XX 1090 Sports Radio and acquiring the rights to broadcast Chargers and Padres games. In July 2010, SAFE inked an $11,765 deal with Lynch's Broadcast Company of the Americas for a variety of promotions. It included 40 30-second spots during Padres games, 40 public-service announcements and 10 other on-air promotions.
But, the contract also included four 60-second "interview opportunities" with San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, the vice chair of SAFE, and SAFE's privately employed executive director Eddie Castoria. We've embedded an example above that was more than four minutes long.
The practice of pay-for-play may be controversial, but it's not that uncommon. In 2009, we reported on local television stations that sold interviews, including KUSI's morning show (allegedly) and a lifestyle show on XETV (definitely).
We asked Lynch about the deal via email.
"To my awareness we never sold interviews at 1090 during my entire ownership," Lynch writes. "Sometimes advertisers would ask for an interview. If relevant, we would allow it to happen."
We pointed out that Lynch's daughter and the company's general manager, Kara Lynch Guthrie, had her name on the contract.
"It's a poor practice and [should] not have happened," he writes, noting that his memory is hazy with the passage of time. (He was ousted from the company three months after the SAFE contract was signed in 2010.)
Lynch also acknowledge that his relationship with Jack Berkman of Berkman PR dates back decades and that Berkman had represented some of Lynch's ventures.
Ironically, and perhaps to the U-T's credit, in January, the newspaper's watchdog team reported on some of Berkman's more ludicrous schemes for SAFE. Under a $130,000 proposal, Berkman wanted to promote SAFE through branded Tupperware, a cook book and an April Fool's Day prank. Berkman's contract was subsequently terminated. A few weeks later, the newspaper's editorial board, upon which Lynch exerts considerable control, blasted SAFE, calling it "greedy" and arguing for its elimination.
Berkman currently represents judicial candidate Jim Miller, who, in the lead-up to the election, was featured prominently in banner ads on the U-T's website. The newspaper endorsed Miller, prompting one of his opponents, Deputy City Attorney George Schaefer, to publicly complain about a private meeting between Miller and Lynch right before the editorial board endorsement interviews.
Meanwhile SAFE has continued to purchase interviews from 1090; three live talks with Roberts and Castoria were included in a 2011 contract worth $30,000.