As election nears, Swing State Network checks pulse of political battlegrounds

By Mike Janssen

Some states get a little sexier every four years: Ohio. Florida. North Carolina. Their pivotal role in deciding the presidential election has made them the backbone of a new ad hoc collaboration, the (Mostly) Swing State Public Radio Network.

WNYC host Brian Lehrer

Lehrer (Photo: WNYC)

Spearheaded by New York’s WNYC, the network brings together public radio stations in political battleground states to reflect the concerns and viewpoints of their much-scrutinized voters. WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer anchors the programs, interviewing callers, chatting with station-based reporters and participating in online chats.

The shows present “a mix of people right on the front lines” of where the Nov. 6 presidential election is expected to be decided, said Jim Schachter, WNYC’s v.p. of news.

The network’s programs began earlier this year during primary elections, are continuing through the conventions and presidential and vice-presidential debates, and will conclude on Election Night. The list of participating stations has grown along the way, from seven stations during the conventions to 18 during the debates. Inclusion of stations in non–swing states, such as Philadelphia’s WHYY and Detroit’s WDET, prompted WNYC to add “(Mostly)” to the network’s name.

The lineup of participating stations has shifted from night to night, with some stations pulling out, depending on their local and national programming priorities. “It’s a series of individual decisions that intersect with our highly energetic New York-style cajoling,” Schachter said.

WNYC’s newsroom began expanding its focus to national politics with its coverage of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman’s 2006 re-election bid. In 2008 it teamed up with Iowa Public Radio and New Hampshire Public Radio to cover primary contests. Listeners got a hint of the high turnout that Iowa would see that year when an Iowa Public Radio reporter told Lehrer that voters couldn’t find parking at caucus sites and the polls were staying open later to accommodate them.

In an era when fewer people were using Twitter for up-to-the-minute information, “that was exciting because we knew how much interest there was going to be,” said Andrea Bernstein, WNYC’s director of news special initiatives.

The network later created ItsaFreeCountry.org. The national-politics subsite of WNYC.org now serves as the home of Lehrer’s post-coverage live chats and provides blog posts, commentaries and additional coverage.

Bernstein is now working to fill out the network’s roster for its Election Night broadcast, which will start an hour before NPR’s live coverage.

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