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All Gassed Up: CBS Radio hands over the mic to natural-gas boosters

"The industry likes to say they operate in good faith. But the absence [of dissenting voices] suggests they aren't."

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On Aug. 15, at least, KDKA 1020 AM was not the place to turn for news about the environmental debate over natural-gas drilling, or about claims that some drillers use accounting tricks to reduce royalty payments to property-owners.

But if you wanted to know the name Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella uses in his daughter's Indian Princesses tribe, though ... you didn't want to touch that dial.

CBS Radio, which owns KDKA and three other local stations, celebrated Aug. 15 as a "Marcellus Shale Festival" — a chance "to celebrate all that Marcellus Shale brings to our region." The festival featured an on-air parade of drilling boosters at KDKA, as well as off-air programming at the North Side's Stage AE.

Morning host Marty Griffin, for example, touted the broadcast as a celebration of "hope and opportunity." His guests included Pitzarella, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald — who has aggressively pursued drilling opportunities on county land — and Phelim McAleer, maker of pro-drilling film FrackNation. Environmentalists, by contrast, were ridiculed in absentia: Griffin mocked Doug Shields, a vocal drilling opponent, by suggesting the former city councilor was "pounding on a bathroom door somewhere, looking for work."

Stage AE, meanwhile, hosted the local premiere of McAleer's movie, and a concert by country-music performer Phil Vassar. A "town hall," hosted by KDKA talk-show host Mike Pintek, featured four politicians, all of whom backed drilling. Pitzarella also participated in the panel discussion, titled "Marcellus Shale — A True Public-Private Partnership: Maximizing the Resource."

Taking questions from the audience, Pintek did ask a couple skeptical questions, including "Are we taxing this industry enough?" (Answer: Yes.) But with no dissenters on hand, such concerns were quickly dropped.

And when environmentalists did appear, they say, they were ushered out.

While the festival was billed as "free to the public," Stage AE is private property, and Lucas Lyons says security told him to leave when he tried to convince attendees that drilling was dangerous. ("People started calling me ‘Obama,'" Lyons says — and because the president supports drilling, "I was really confused.")

Another environmentalist, Kathryn Hilton, tried circulating anti-drilling literature. "I was fairly certain there weren't going to be any alternate views available," she says. And indeed, she says she was told to distribute the material outside.

"The industry likes to say they operate in good faith," Hilton says, "but the absence [of dissenting voices] suggests they aren't."

The Festival events and broadcasts were sponsored by drilling interests, including an upcoming industry convention and Norton Rose Fulbright, a law firm with a drilling practice. Companies like Range are frequent CBS Radio advertisers; sports-talk station 93.7 The Fan even offers a sponsored "Fracking is Fun" fact-of-the-day feature.

Hosting promotional events with on-air tie-ins is a common radio practice. (Full disclosure: That holds true for the two radio stations owned by the family that owns City Paper, which compete with CBS' local properties.) But such events typically feature concerts or family activities, rather than promoting controversial industries. CBS Radio senior vice president Michael Young says CBS does "not normally" conduct such promotions, though the station has held smaller-scale "expos" on drilling before.

"We promoted it as a Marcellus Shale Festival, and the town-hall meeting was about how private companies and the public sector were working together," says Young.

Gas drilling "represents a big deal for commerce in the area," Young adds. It also means commerce for his stations: "To be honest, there is a business interest in it."

Still, Young says, "In our editorial coverage, I think you get a diverse sense of opinions, and of objective news coverage." When asked about claims that environmentalists' opinions were unwelcome at the Festival, Young said he couldn't comment. But "if there's a big story" related to drilling, "our folks will be out there and be objective."

But why should audiences believe that? When a broadcaster boosts an industry on and off the air, is it fair to expect listeners to distinguish a station's news-gathering from its promotions?

"I don't think there's a simple answer" to that, Young says. Sometimes the dividing line is "very obvious," he says. "Other times, I think seeing it is a little harder."

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