Minnesota GOP political ad man’s side hustle as radio host could draw attention from regulators

Softball questions on the air for his client, Rep. Jim Hagedorn

By: - September 28, 2020 6:00 am

Al Travis Thielfoldt gets paid by politicians like GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn to place ads on radio stations like the one he works for as a radio host. Photo courtesy of KTOE.

WASHINGTON — In appearances over the past year on a small AM radio station in Mankato, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, R-Blue Earth, discussed the federal response to COVID-19, impeachment hearings against President Donald Trump and of course, the Minnesota Vikings.

One thing he didn’t discuss, though, is that the news jockey throwing softballs his way is a paid vendor of Hagedorn’s campaign for reelection in the state’s 1st District, having been entrusted with turning hundreds of thousands of Hagedorn’s campaign dollars into digital ads and spots on local news stations, including the one on which he interviews the congressman.

Hagedorn and the radio host, Al Travis Thielfoldt, who mans the “Al in the Afternoon” chat show on KTOE under the stage name Al Travis, have never disclosed on the air that they have a financial relationship, Thielfoldt confirmed in an interview. Thielfoldt’s company, Innovative Marketing Techniques, was given $64,450 this election cycle from the Hagedorn campaign as of the end of July, and half a million dollars during the 2018 election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Failure to disclose the relationship is at the very least a breach of journalistic norms, which has raised the suspicions of media ethics experts and made at least one news employee at the station uneasy. 

And, some experts in broadcast law believe the relationship could set off a chain of events that could require the station to give equal, compensatory time on the air not just to Dan Feehan, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor nominee running in a tight rematch against Hagedorn, but also a minor party candidate in the race, the nominee of the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.

In an interview, Thielfoldt defended his decision not to disclose to his listeners that he has been paid by the campaign, saying the Minnesota Reformer inquiry was an attempt to “lynch” him and calling it “cancel culture run amok.” He said he was never paid to have Hagedorn on the air, did not treat Hagedorn any differently due to their financial ties and didn’t feel compelled to disclose the arrangement because Hagedorn talked about sports and his work in Congress, not campaign politics.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn represents Minnesota’s First District after a narrow victory in 2018.

“Every time Congressman Hagedorn comes on, I should say, ‘Two years ago, my ad agency purchased advertising for you?’ Like somehow that qualifies the fact I’m going to ask him how the Vikings did?” Thielfoldt said. “We can argue whether that’s important and I don’t think the rest of the world gets it.”

The Federal Communications Commission might care, though, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, an expert in media law at the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. 

In his decades in media law, Schwartzman said he’s never heard of a campaign hired gun also interviewing the candidate on the air as a news man. He said the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement bureau would probably look into a situation like this if they caught wind of it.

“These things are looked at very, very darkly,” Schwartzman said. “There is perhaps circumstantial evidence that the congressman, as a customer of the radio host, was receiving special treatment.”

The question, Schwartzman said, is whether an inquiry could prove that Thielfoldt was directly or indirectly compensated to give more air time or beneficial treatment to Hagedorn — which Thielfoldt denied is the case. Thielfoldt said most of the money his company was paid was passed on to the stations where he placed the ads.

“I’m not a journalist” 

“The idea that I’ve ever given Jim extra time or softball questions? No,” he said, adding that local politicians from across the political spectrum get the same treatment on his show on KTOE and a cable TV show he hosts. “It’s softball for everybody. My job is not to get anybody to vote one way or the other. My job is to just let people know what people stand for.”

“I’m not a journalist, if you will. I’m not a news person. It’s not who I am,” he added.

Other candidates in Hagedorn’s race, however, have not been on Thielfoldt’s show. Schwartzman said that if the FCC found that his interviews with Hagedorn were not — as the agency requires — “bonafide news interviews,” the station could be compelled to give free and equal air time to other candidates, like Feehan and Bill Rood, who’ll be on the ballot representing the Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis Party.

That would be rare, but not at all unprecedented. Just this month, a candidate for local office in Texas complained to the FCC and brokered a deal for equal time with a radio group that employs his opponent, an incumbent Kerr County commissioner.

Feehan spokesman Ben Reimler said in a statement that the campaign hopes the station respects the rules: “Dan has enjoyed being interviewed by KTOE in the past and hopes equal time laws are being followed to ensure all southern Minnesotans have a balanced view of his record of service and commitment to putting people first in our politics.” 

Dan Feehan is the DFL nominee against Rep. Jim Hagedorn. He has not been on Travis’ show this year. Courtesy photo.

Thielfoldt has run into similar issues before. In 2012, he agreed to disclose on his cable TV show, “Between the Lines,” that he had done ad work for then-GOP Congressional candidate Allen Quist after the financial relationship drew attention from local press

Schwartzman also said the station’s licensee has a legal responsibility to do due diligence on its employees and make necessary disclosures if it’s deemed necessary, not just on the air but in a public, searchable record of political airtime that stations must file with the FCC.

The station’s listed licensee, Miami lawyer J. David Linder, did not respond to a request for comment. The station’s D.C. attorney, John Neely, declined to comment. Hagedorn’s campaign spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.

Meredith McGeehee, a congressional ethics expert and executive director of the federal reform nonprofit Issue One, said that even if Hagedorn had no obligation to disclose that he paid Thielfoldt, it would have been a good idea simply because Congress is held in such low esteem by the public. 

“Right now they’re hovering lower than used car salesmen,” she said. “The perception of politicians is so low that it behooves every public official to bend over backwards to try and increase that public confidence.”

Other experts were skeptical much would come of this, however. The FCC has deemed everything from Fox News to the Tonight Show to Jerry Springer to be bonafide news programs, said a prominent D.C. FCC attorney, who declined to speak on the record because he represents clients in Minnesota. It’s not against the rules to wear two career hats, he said, as long as you don’t wear them at the same time.

“The news interview exemption is pretty broad,” he said. “This may be less of a question of whether it is a violation of FCC rules than it is a question of whether it is a violation of what the station would want to have been told, that when he’s having this guy on, that he’s a client.

“A shill and a paid shill” 

But Tim McGuire, a former media ethics professor at Arizona State University and the onetime managing editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, said trying to apply media ethics to someone who clearly doesn’t consider himself a journalist would be pointless.

“I can’t apply normal journalism ethics code because the offense is so egregious,” he said. “Of course that’s a violation of journalism ethics. But again, I’m not sure he’s a journalist. When you violate ethics like that, you’re not a journalist, you’re a shill and a paid shill.”

Still, for other journalists working at the only information station in the small market, KTOE’s reputation matters. Ashley Hanley, the station’s news director, has interviewed Hagedorn and Feehan. She said in a phone interview that she wants the community to know that station is not biased. In some cases, she said, the station has gone to lengths to prove that. For instance, North Mankato City Councilman Billy Steiner runs a periodic music segment, but doesn’t appear on the air close to election season.

“My concern is that people think that we, as a station, support any candidate,” Hanley said. “I would hope that any employee, not just Al, but anyone who we have on our air as an employee of Radio Mankato, would take that into consideration and make sure that we are as upfront and as clear and as honest as we can be.”

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Daniel Newhauser
Daniel Newhauser

Daniel Newhauser is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Roll Call, VICE, National Journal and several other publications.