Obamacare enrollment drive’s secret weapon: Radio

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
Obamacare overhaul
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Navigator John Jones explains the many options to a client seeking help buying health insurance at the Family Guidance Center Monday, March 31, 2014, in Springfield, Ill. People who don't have health insurance have until midnight Monday to enroll or else they'll face federal tax penalties under the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

For months, the media story of how President Obama sold Obamacare to America has starred unconventional outlets like Funny or Die, unconventional pitches like this “Mom Jeans” message for Twitter, and unconventional sales reps like Kobe Bryant, Wil Wheaton, or the moms of Jonah Hill and Adam Levine.

But a look inside the Affordable Care Act’s all-out enrollment drive shows that — for all the talk about social media and unorthodox strategies — the Administration relied heavily in the final stretch on a century-old way to reach the public: Radio.

On Monday, senior Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett did her first radio interview at 8:30 am. By 6:30 pm, she was on her 21st, bringing her total over the past six weeks to 82.

She has done them from her office, home, car, an airport runway, her hotel room. Some DJs she has spoken to did not have health insurance before the Affordable Care Act but have now signed up, a White House aide said. Some DJs – like Joe Madison, to whom she spoke on Monday — have amplified the administration’s message by playing stories of callers helped by the law.

Overall, top administration officials – and celebrity surrogates – have taken part in some 300 individual radio interviews, according to administration figures shared with Yahoo News.

Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, and Vice President Biden have done 20 radio interviews, many of them focusing on young Americans as well as African American and Hispanic communities in target markets with large uninsured populations.

They’ve been on Live With Ryan Seacrest, Univision’s Locura Deportiva and El Bueno, La Mala y el Feo, Steve Harvey, Rickey Smiley and Russ Parr. They’ve done regional radio shows like Power 96’s “Power in the Afternoon with Afrika” in Miami, with “ShoBoy” in the morning in Texas and Wills & Snyder in the Morning in Cleveland.

Top Obama aides including White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and senior advisors Dan Pfeiffer and Phil Schiliro have called into more than 30 radio stations,

Where Jarrett targeted Sway In The Morning, or popular shows on Top 40, Hip-Hop, Gospel, Soul and R&B stations (and Iowa public radio and NPR Alaska), McDonough, Pfeiffer and Schiliro targeted syndicated or regional sports talk radio stations.

Athletes, actors, musicians, television personalities have pitched in. Kobe Bryant, Grant Hill, Kerry Washington, Jonelle Monae, Nia Long, Jurnee Smollett, Star Jones, Tatyana Ali, Nikki Reed, Aisha Tyler, and Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney together have been on about 400 radio stations nationwide.

Cabinet secretaries have done more than 60 interviews with local radio stations in states like Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

Why radio? Political communications strategists say part of the appeal is the essentially captive audience, whether it’s drive-time radio, or something to listen to on the construction site or in the office. People have an attachment to their drive-time choice and tend to trust it more than the bewildering array of news sources online or on television. And several strategists underlined that radio hosts are better than their cable TV news colleagues about letting a guest say what they want to say.

“Radio is a necessary part of any robust, comprehensive outreach,” said Ben LaBolt, national press secretary for Obama’s 2012 campaign.

“Radio in many ways is more targeted than television is,” he said. “And you sometimes see radio hosts be more advocates for a cause than their cable TV (counterparts). It’s talk radio, not news radio.”

Some outside groups may see the last six weeks as a test of their ability to shape the outcome in eight months, when the mid-term elections are held. Organizations like Enroll America, SEIU, Moms Rising, NAACP, and LULAC held more than 5,000 events on the ground – another traditional, campaign-style approach.

Then there’s the online blitz: Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, Google hang-outs, the parody show “Between Two Ferns,” and other high-tech moves familiar to anyone who watched Obama’s two presidential campaigns.

Celebrities and athletes – dubbed “influencers” by the administration – have spread the word via accounts that each have millions of followers.

Online videos have played a part as well. Obama’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns,” taking mock questions from Zach Galifianakis scored 23 million views. A White House-produced public service announcement starring Magic Johnson pulled in 2.2 million. YouTube personality Vsauce made an Obamacare video seen by 1.8 million views. In all, online videos drew 33 million views.

It’s hard to say how many enrollments stem directly from such unusual outreach – or even the traditional kind.

So “what worked?” may not be answerable.

The administration announced last week that 6 million people have enrolled in Obamacare, though precise figures on how many nationwide have actually started to pay their premiums will likely not be available for a while. And even a successful enrollment period won’t quiet the angry political debate going into the November mid-term elections.

But one thing’s for sure: it’s a debate you can tune into on your radio.

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