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True Confessions of a Former Mayor: My Media Experiment

February 14, 2018  |  Deke Copenhaver
In a nation which often seems to be divided along political lines I’ve always found it’s not so hard to find common ground with almost anyone if you take the time to sit down and have a good conversation.  Having served in elected office for nine years, I learned early on its much more productive  to take the time to listen to someone else’s point of view, even if it doesn’t mirror your own, as opposed to prejudging them as being wrong or attaching a label to them.  Fortunately, this approach has blessed me with a very diverse group of friends, not all of whom I always agree with, and strong working relationships which have far outlasted my time in office.
After leaving office I had a unique opportunity to seek the common ground in our community as I was asked to host a daily talk show on a local radio station.  Although I had very little radio experience I welcomed the chance to have three hours of air time daily to laser focus on what was going on in our community. At that point I had an extraordinarily talented young lady named Virginia working with my consulting business who thankfully made the transition with me into the world of radio.  I’ll never forget our first day in the studio. With no instruction ahead of time we didn’t even know where to plug my headphones in as we set upon our new adventure. 
The premise of show we set out to develop was very simple: find interesting people who were working to build a stronger community and simply have a conversation with them.  At the outset, our critics opined that we would run out of interesting people to talk to.  However, Virginia and I realized that in a city of 200,000 people, with a metropolitan statistical area of nearly 600,000 residents, we would find no shortage of interesting guests to share their stories.  To qualify as a guest you simply had to be willing to have an intelligent conversation on the topic of your choice and no hidden agenda.  The show aired on conservative talk radio as I led into Rush Limbaugh, but conservative talk radio our show was definitely not.
Our focus from the beginning was not for me to give my opinion on any given topic but rather to bring on subject matter experts who actually had firsthand experience with the issues we discussed.  Our guest list was inclusive and reflected all sectors of our community, giving listeners a clear picture of the place they had chosen to call home. In what I now realize was not the norm, I never did research on our guests as I felt strongly that I wanted to learn their stories at the same time as our listeners.  Through our conversations with elected officials, nonprofit workers, musicians, actors, addiction counselors, authors, artists and people from all walks of life, our listeners were able to get to know people they may never have met. We made it a point to always make our guests feel comfortable and the conversations flowed freely and easily.  The fact that we didn’t talk politics probably helped keep things civil and to a person we never had a guest who didn’t have something interesting to share.
We could tell that the show had connected with the community, not by ratings, but by the unsolicited comments we received while interacting with people at the grassroots level.  The most heartwarming thing about these interactions was the diversity of people who shared with us how much they enjoyed the show and being a part of the conversation.  We could see that our audience was no set demographic as the positive responses were from a very diverse group of genders, ethnicities, cultures and ages.  Basically, we weren’t focusing on any one demographic but rather tried to provide guests covering a wide range of topics that we felt the average man or woman on the street could relate to.  Effectively, the show became a common ground where guests and listeners could feel comfortable just having an intimate conversation.
After ten months our guest list had grown to include Congressman Rick Allen, State Representative Mark Newton, Editorial Cartoonist Rick McKee, Chef Jose Andres, Avett Brothers Bassist Bob Crawford, Masters Champion Fuzzy Zoeller, Secretary of State Brian Kemp, and the Reverend Al Sharpton to name just a few.  Every Wednesday we had live local music with the “Midweek Music Mash-up” and our younger audience continued to grow.  To reach a wider audience we began doing every show on Facebook Live with each episode posted to our fan site.  On average the shows were getting 10,000 views and our audience expanded far beyond our local listening area.  Needless to say, it was good to know that there was actually a market for listening to a constructive conversation as opposed to people shouting over or at each other. 
Unfortunately our little experiment of using a media platform to bring people together as opposed to dividing them along political, ethnic, socioeconomic or any other kind of lines, did not end well.  During negotiations to renew my contract we were informed that the show had been cancelled.  Glenn Beck, who I had originally replaced, was now replacing me.  I’ve never really learned the reason for this, but I suspect it had to do with the show not fitting within the box of what typical conservative talk radio sounds like.  However, I know the experiment was a success as I still get positive feedback months later.  In the end I know that treating our guests and our listeners with dignity and respect was the right thing to do and we had a lot of fun in the process. 
One statement in the interview I did with Reverend Sharpton underscored for me what the show was all about.  After reminding me and Deanna Brown Thomas, the daughter of my friend Mr. James Brown, that his mentor Mr. Brown was a conservative Republican whose political views were not his own, Mr. Sharpton stated:  “You know Deanna, if Mr. Brown was here he’d say ‘Deanna, Rev, y’all need to respect Mr. Trump!’” And there it is. 
Deke Copenhaver is Principal with the Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.