Unplugged: Political race costs popular weatherman his job

2014-07-02T00:00:00Z 2014-07-07T06:49:09Z Unplugged: Political race costs popular weatherman his jobBy TOM LUTEY tlutey@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A campaign for state Legislature by popular longtime radio weatherman John Pulasky has turned into a forecast for trouble.

The 24-year meteorologist for Northern Broadcasting was taken off the air shortly before the June primary election after his opponent, real estate agent Clayton Fiscus, demanded free, equal airtime from Pulasky’s employer, Taylor Brown.

Federal law allows Fiscus and other opponents of on-air personalities to seek equal time. But Pulasky told The Gazette he didn’t want to lose his job and had proposed a truce, of sorts.

“I told him (Fiscus), if I stay on the air and you ask for equal time, Taylor is going to fire me. I won’t have a paycheck,” Pulasky said. “I said ‘As I understand, if you sign and I sign a waiver, where I pledge that I’m not going to talk about you, the campaign or politics — just do the weather — everything is fine.”

Fiscus didn’t sign the waiver. He wrote Northern Broadcasting, demanding equal time if Pulasky remained on the air.

Fiscus, a Republican, represented part of the Billings Heights, Worden, Shepherd and Broadview in the 2013 Legislature. He and Pulasky, a Democrat, are now competing to represent a newly drawn district that includes most of Billings Heights and northern outskirts of Huntley. Part of the district is familiar to Fiscus, but part of it is an area in which Democrats have been successful.

In his letter to Taylor Brown demanding equal time, Fiscus argued that previous on-air personalities like former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, former gubernatorial candidate Rob Natelson and even Brown himself, a state senator, quit radio to run for office.

“If my request is denied or ignored and John Pulasky continues to broadcast, my only choice is to file a complaint with the (Federal Communications Commission) and the Office of Political Practices,” Fiscus wrote.

It wasn’t clear to Pulasky in the beginning that running for state Legislature would cost him his job. In addition to doing the weather for Northern Broadcasting, the meteorologist also worked with Our Montana, a conservation group.

Some of Pulasky’s Our Montana contacts suggested he run for the Legislature. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester began leaving recruiting messages on Pulasky’s answering machine.

Pulasky said he was concerned equal air time might come up. The Montana Democratic Party assured him it wouldn’t, but after consulting with the FCC concluded equal air time could be an issue, unless Fiscus agreed to a waiver.

Simply put, FCC law states that U.S. radio and television stations are obligated to offer equal time to opposing candidates who request it, with some exceptions for news interviews, documentaries, scheduled newscasts and debates. The gist of the law is that unequal air time can influence an election outcome.

The FCC gives no exception to equal time rule for newscasters who are also candidates. The commission ruled against William Branch, a Sacramento television news personality, who withdrew his bid for town council in 1984 after his opponent demanded equal time. Whether the news personality was campaigning on the air didn't matter, according to the FCC. The opponent is entitled to equal time and can use it to campaign.

The equal time rule is broad in scope. It assured equal time to opponents of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger whenever films aired of the movie stars turned politician.

“In general, my personal thoughts are the law is much more restrictive on people in broadcasting,” said Taylor Brown.

Brown withdrew from the air entirely in 2008 when he ran against Lane Larson, an incumbent state senator who Brown defeated. No other profession is expected to honor the same equal time limits. Fiscus, for example, isn't expected to make space available on his real estate signs to Pulasky, Brown said. A candidate working in print journalism isn’t required to give an opponent equal space.

Outside the legislative district in which Pulasky and Fiscus are running, radio stations still want Pulasky as the person who listeners turn to before deciding whether it’s prudent to cut hay, hold an outdoor wedding or put the car in the garage before a summer hail storm. Pulasky is marketing his own report to interested stations.

Brown said he wasn’t willing to expose radio station customers of his programming to an FCC complaint by Pulasky’s opponent, regardless of whether the complaint had merit.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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