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St. Helens Councilor Phil Barlow uses radio waves to reach out
by: Tyler Graf BARLOW FACTOR – City Councilor Phil Barlow takes his punditry to the airwaves with a new weekly radio show. He broadcasts the program Thursdays at 6 p.m., on KOHI 1600 AM.

Positioned closely in front of a hot studio microphone, St. Helens City Councilor Phil Barlow is working himself into a verbal lather over national politics.

He's on the air, broadcasting his KOHI radio program from the station's Pittsburg Road facility. The second-term City Councilor has turned radio man, fulfilling his desire to connect with an audience. In doing so, though, he could blur the lines between politician and media personality, communications experts say.

Dressed in a red pinstripe shirt, white collar and cuffs, with suspenders hoisting his pants high, Barlow is dressed a little like another radio personality: Larry King.

KOHI owner Marty Rowe sits in an adjacent room, encased on one side by a large pane of glass, and acts as Barlow's producer - screening calls, timing the show and taking it to commercial.

When the one-hour show wraps, Rowe bolts out of the room to congratulate Barlow on 'a great show,' his first at the KOHI studio and among his first over the airwaves. A Republican, Rowe teases Barlow on his liberal views, uncommon on the typically conservative radio station.

Barlow is still fired up.

'Well, do you think subsidies equal a good thing, Marty?' Barlow asks Rowe.

'No,' Rowe says, pausing for a second. 'Now I'm getting scared because I'm beginning to agree with KOHI's raving liberal.'

Barlow tries to go beyond the 'raving liberal' appellation with his radio show, he says. Most of the show's content covers local issues: Sheriff's Office funding, waste water rates and budget woes.

To that end, the show mixes updates about St. Helens with Barlow's views, a call-in segment and interviews with county officials. One regular segment is loosely titled 'Dial an Elected Official,' during which Barlow calls a local politician, typically without much prior warning, live on air.

It doesn't always work as planned, however.

During Thursday's show, Rowe attempted to reach, in successive order, County Commissioner Henry Heimuller, City Councilor Doug Morten and City Councilor Keith Locke for Barlow's program. No one picked up. Locke ended up calling back, however.

Always on air

This isn't Barlow's first dance with radio.

In the 1990s, Barlow worked for several years on a pre-taped Christian show for KOHI called Youth Talk of Radio. The show was a pre-taped mixture of humorous sketches and Christian heavy metal and rap.

That's when the radio bug bit him, Barlow says. And when technology allowed for easier access to people through social media, Barlow latched on.

Nowadays, Barlow is on almost everyday: He posts snippets of his life on Ustream-a video sharing website similar to YouTube, except users can stream their videos in real time - and updates his Twitter and Facebook feed at a breakneck pace.

As a city councilor, he expects a similar dedication from the city. He was at least partially responsible for airing council meetings live on Ustream, setting up a city-run Twitter account and updating the city's Facebook site. City Councilor Morten has also been a proponent of the push in the direction of social media.

'The big thing is being completely open,' Barlow says. 'I've always talked about transparency and being open.'

Questions about media exposure

But among communications experts, there's disagreement about what role a city councilor should take in the media.

Cynthia-Lou Coleman is a communications professor at Portland State University. She says it can be troublesome when a politician becomes a de facto journalist.

Under that scenario, facts can easily be skewed, she says.

'[A radio show] gives them an unfair advantage if it gives them traction,' Coleman says. 'Do politicians already have more access to media? You bet they do.'

Dave Kennamore is also a communications professor at PSU and a former small-town reporter. A city councilor using multiple media platforms is less problematic if there's an open dialogue between the city official and the public, he says.

'If it's an open, transparent thing, then it's fine,' Kennamore says, adding that there's typically 'leadership overlap' in small towns anyway.

'This sort of thing goes back to Roosevelt, with his fireside chats,' he says.

And in the realm of constituent relations, for better or worse, that 'leadership overlap' can end up saving money, too.

In one well publicized instance, Multnomah County came under fire two years ago when it posted a job opening for a social media expert, which would have come with a $70,000 a year salary. The position was later pulled after public and media scrutiny.

But local governments across the nation, both big and small, have begun stepping up their media exposure in recent years, Kennamore says.

Barlow says he does the radio program for fun and as a way to engage the community.