Two days after President Donald Trump held a political rally in the hurricane-thrashed Florida Panhandle, Samuel Rogatinsky, the owner of three FM radio stations in the region, made an unusual announcement: His stations would be airing snippets of Trump's speech for two minutes every hour until Election Day — in 2020.
Rogatinsky figured his decision would be popular in the deeply red Panhandle, where Trump filled an outdoor amphitheatre on May 8 and promised to bring in federal aid for people still struggling to recover from the wrath of Hurricane Michael, the Category 5 storm that ravaged the region last October.
What the station owner did not expect was the immediate national and international interest in his plan to effectively give Trump free airtime for the duration of his re-election campaign.
"Literally the calls don't stop," Rogatinsky said last week as he fielded phone interview requests. "How many publications are there? One after another after another."
Rogatinsky, a 49-year-old lawyer in Fort Lauderdale and a registered Democrat, said he was not motivated by politics, though he voted for Trump in 2016. He said his intent was to express "sincere appreciation" for the president's attention to the broad swath of the Panhandle affected by the hurricane — and still awaiting the emergency relief funding that has been tied up in a political fight in Congress for seven months.
"The rally was so popular, and I saw that so many people were into it, so we said, 'Let's bring more attention to the area,'" Rogatinsky said. "It's like the forgotten Panhandle."
Two days after the president's rally, Rogatinsky's three stations — WASJ (adult contemporary), WKNK (country) and WRBA (classic rock) — began inserting snippets ranging from 90 seconds to two minutes of Trump's rally speech into their hourly programming, without introduction or explanation and separate from commercial ads. Listeners phoned into the stations, mostly with words of praise, Rogatinsky said. He said his staff was searching for clips from other presidential speeches relevant to the region to feature in the future.
With 531 days until the election, and assuming the stations broadcast the bits of Trump's speeches every hour, the time on the airwaves could amount to more than 25,000 minutes. That is equivalent to 430 hours, or nearly 18 days.
Not everyone shared Rogatinsky's enthusiasm.
"I don't think that him being on the radio for two minutes every hour is going to make an impact on the fact that we've had seven months of empty promises from him to help us here in the Panhandle," said Winnie Byrd, chairwoman of the Democratic Party in Bay County. "We still have people in tents, or in cars, living. We've got no federal aid."
A would-be Trump aide's demands: A jet on call, weekends off and more
Byrd, who lost her Panama City home to the hurricane, has been living in a small apartment in nearby Lynn Haven as she argues with her insurance company over repairs.
"We're seeing more and more people that are very dissatisfied, especially when we're sitting here like we are, seeing nothing happening," she said. "He's supposed to be the president of all the people."
On May 10, the same day the broadcasts started, the House approved a US$19.1 billion emergency relief bill that would help northwest Florida and other communities across the country hurt by natural disasters. The president has resisted the aid package because of funding set aside for Puerto Rico, an allocation that Trump considers too generous.
During last week's rally in Panama City Beach, Trump promised more aid for the Panhandle, including US$448 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also said the federal government would increase its share of costs for rebuilding, easing the financial strain on local governments.
"You're getting your money one way or another, and we're not going to let anybody hold it up," Trump told the crowd.
Trump's visit was well-received, said Philip Griffitts, a Bay County commissioner, who like the other four commission members is a Republican. Several of them were in Washington on Wednesday, asking Congress and federal agencies for more assistance.
"I don't really think this is a partisan issue in our part of the world. It's more of a human issue," he said of Trump's aid pledge. "Both parties are represented in our county. While the Republican Party is obviously a majority, there's still lots of Democrats suffering as much as Republicans."
If other candidates want similar airtime, Rogatinsky said, he would be happy to accommodate them — an offer that might keep the stations from running afoul of regulations from the Federal Communications Commission that require equal time for candidates.
"If Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders wants to come to the Panhandle and come to Panama City and do a rally, man, I'll put them on the same day," Rogatinsky said. "It's all good."
Rogatinsky also said he would reconsider airing the speech excerpts if they proved unpopular among listeners in the long run.
For Rogatinsky, all the attention may be good business for his fledgling company, Gulf Coast Media, which bought the three Bay County stations in December for $375,000. Their previous owner, Powell Broadcasting, announced it was ceasing operations because of the extensive damage the hurricane inflicted on its Panama City Beach facility. A radio tower fell and one of the stations is still operating out of a temporary tower, Rogatinsky said.
He also owns a Haitian station in Palm Beach County, WPBR-AM. Among his first decisions after making that purchase, Rogatinsky said, was to end a talk show featuring Derek Black, the son of Don Black, a noted white nationalist.
"That was my favorite call to make," Rogatinsky said. Derek Black has since denounced white nationalism.
Citing his Haitian audience in South Florida, Rogatinsky said he disagreed with Trump's push to end temporary protective status for Haitians.
"I'm not a die-hard on either side," he said. "I'm a businessman."
Written by: Patricia Mazzei
Photographs by: Doug Mills and Johnny Milano
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES