Rust never sleeps, and neither does the billboard lobby. A year ago Clear Channel, the Texas-based media conglomerate that dominates “out of home” advertising in this area, struck out twice in its efforts to make the roadways safe for lucrative digital billboards. The King County Council scuttled what seemed a done deal that would have let Clear Channel convert its 21 conventional billboards in unincorporated county territory into what critics call “televisions on sticks.” Clear Channel also failed in a bid for much bigger stakes: to persuade the legislature to allow digital boards along state highways. Such a measure passed the Senate in 2011 but died in committee in the House that year and the next.
Now it’s back, with bipartisan sponsorship. This year’s digital billboard bill will actually get a public hearing, at 3:30 Tuesday before the House Transportation Committee. Transportation chair Judy Clibborn, who blocked last year’s effort, is standing back this time.
Oddly, the reintroduced bill seems to have caught both anti-billboard activists and regulators flatfooted. Neighborhood- and scenic-protection advocates who mustered against past efforts may not have time to turn out now. “We’re still looking at it,” says Mike Dornfeld, who oversees the Washington Department of Transportation’s billboard program. “We don’t have an opinion yet.”
This year’s edition is at least more forthright in its advertising. Last year’s bill was putatively about “authorizing the use of digital outdoor advertising signs to expand the state's emergency messaging capabilities.” This year’s promises to provide “cities and towns with the local options [sic] to permit digital outdoor advertising signs.” The deal is the same, however; in return for being allowed to go digital, billboard operators would post AMBER alerts (abducted children), blue alerts (cop killers at large), and missing persons and emergency notices for free.
It’s a deal Clear Channel and its competitors gladly embrace and cannily publicize. Public service postings are how they woo citizens and politicians who might otherwise see billboards as ugly and intrusive.
And so, six days before this year’s House bill was to get its hearing, Mayor Mike McGinn and County Councilmember Reagan Dunn unveiled a “campaign to raise awareness of human trafficking taking place in our community” and saluted Clear Channel for donating “$94,000 in advertising space” (i.e.,13 billboard postings) plus $88,000 in air time.
Such gestures can make friends and influence legislation. "I'm for anything that helps the AMBER alert system," says Rep. Chris Reykdal, one of the current bill's sponsors. (He also supports digital billboards because they're "the future of advertising" and "a tremendous advantage in the marketplace," not only for billboard operators like Clear Channel but for "small businesses that can't afford to rent a whole billboard" but can afford to buy eight-second spots in the electronic queue.)
Officials in Kent, the first King County municipality to allow digital billboards, have said they’re delighted with Clear Channel's public-service postings. But their counterparts in Renton and Burien were less impressed; they urged the county not to approve the e-boards for fear they’d be stuck with them when, as expected, those cities annex the now-unincorporated land that the billboards stand on. Tacoma, courting a lawsuit, rescinded its earlier assent to convert many conventional billboards to digital.
Judy Clibborn, the House transportation chair, last year opined that electronic billboards were not only obnoxious but unnecessary. Highway managers already have plenty of electronic emergency alert readers, she explained: “They don’t need” Clear Channel’s help. This year, an aide says, “she doesn’t yet have an opinion on it. She hasn’t had time to take a look at it.”
Academic researchers have begun questioning the effectiveness of that help — in particular of the AMBER (“America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response”) alerts, this century’s answer to the “Have you seen me?” milk cartons of the 1980s and the poster child for public-service billboards generally. A 2007 University of Nevada study found that AMBER alerts only rarely publicize the sort of stranger abductions that are actually dangerous and that the alerts usually go out too late to affect the critical three-hour rescue “window” in such cases. The lead researcher called most Amber alerts “crime-control theater.”
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!