Anxiety greets broadcasters' contract offer


A broadcasters association says it can give state government five times the usual bang for its advertising buck, but a state agency that once relied on the association now declines to use it for fear of offending legislators who are investigating state procurement practices.

A $55,000 contract renewal was abruptly canceled -- and may not be resurrected.

State health department officials say they were reacting to the Task Force on Maryland's Procurement Law, which wants state agencies to follow procedures and get the most from taxpayer dollars -- the sort of economy and effectiveness several agencies say the broadcasters group provides.

But the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene now says it must seek competitive bids for the work done by broadcasters. In the past, the association was regarded as a "sole source" and bidding requirements were waived.

Informed of the canceled contract during a recent legislative hearing, Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel, said he thinks the health department has gotten a counterproductive dose of "religion." Mr. Cade is chairman of the study of procurement practices.

"It seems to me this is an overreaction to the fact that the task force exists," he said. The $55,000 contract was an extension of advertising, handled under an earlier contract by the association, designed to persuade pregnant poor women to take advantage of prenatal services.

"Many babies die or are born sick because they are born too early -- before nine months," the advertisement's text reads. "If you don't get prenatal care your baby could be born small and weak and never have a chance at a healthy life." It ended with the phone number for the department's Healthy Start program (800-456-8900).

The association's executive director, Chip Weinman, says department officials gave him unofficial assurances that it wanted to continue the program this fall. Since the department also had supplied the text and since it requested certain changes, the association's member stations started running the ads.

About 10 days later, Mr. Weinman was told the contract would not be renewed after all until bids were sought.

"They started running the spots prior to getting approval," says Mike Golden, the department's spokesman. "The department wants to make sure they are a sole-source provider, because of the issue raised by the legislature and the Board of Public Works on sole sourcing."

Under certain circumstances, the state's usual bidding requirements are not required and the "sole source" approach is used when a department determines that source can provide a product or service unavailable otherwise.

"Sole source" procurements are commonplace in state government, but as a result of several celebrated cases, one of them involving millions of dollars in computer purchases, the legislature is asking if the approach has been abused.

In this case, the sole source approach appeared to be working as intended -- and the requirement for bidding could bring an end to it.

Some members of the task force wondered during the hearing if the broadcasters' deal wasn't too good to be true -- possibly an example of the nonexistent "free lunch," said Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, scornfully. He said his father warned him against believing in such things.

Several officials, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, have praised the association's effectiveness.

"Your help in arranging to have our carjacking public service announcements aired on more than 60 television and radio stations in the Maryland-Washington, D.C., area was the key to the success of our campaign," the governor wrote in October 1992 to the association.

"It is only by forming public-private partnerships such as this one," the governor said, "that we will be able to prevent carjacking and other serious violent crimes from occurring in our communities."

Mr. Golden, too, had written to thank the association for its efforts -- in this case, to inform Marylanders of a free immunization program. "Without your help, I don't think we could have effectively gotten the word out on such short notice," he wrote on Aug. 10, 1992.

Known officially as the Maryland/D.C./Delaware Broadcasters Association, the group says it can provide bargain rates by selling the unsold air time of its members. Since the time could not be sold at full rate, the stations make it available through their association at a rate equivalent to 20 cents on the dollar.

Many other states have used so-called "noncommercial sustaining announcements" or NCSAs for several years. And, during the hearing, officials of the program in Delaware testified about its uses and effectiveness there.

With the association staff serving as traffic manager, Mr. Weinman says, the ads are scheduled and run in virtually every time slot -- not in the middle of the night, as critics charge.

Mr. Weinman's legislative information package includes affidavits provided by his stations showing precisely how often and when the spots ran. As partially paid advertisements, the broadcasters' spots get better play than public service announcements that must be run without charge. Public service spots flow into radio stations now in such volume that, often, they seldom run.

For the NCSAs the stations, themselves, get no money. What they get is goodwill -- as reflected, for example, by the governor's letter -- and a range of professional services from the association. They also pay association dues of $200 to $600 a year, depending on station size and market.

Though some legislators were skeptical of the association's claims, some thought the program should be more widely used on such efforts as the anti-smoking campaign and promotion of tourism.

But the program may not be available in the future unless the sole source approach is used.

Mr. Weinman said the broadcasters' group has decided it cannot bid to keep the contract.

It would be competing with advertising agencies that buy air time, usually at full price, from its member stations.

He does not think anyone can match the deal his group offers, but he said his member stations do not wish to risk offending the ad agencies by competing with them.

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