Conservative Groups Paying Up for Talk Show Endorsements

Politico investigates the business of subtle promotions

For the past few years, conservative radio hosts like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Mark Levin have been preaching the messages of prominent conservative advocacy groups—and encouraging their listeners to open their wallets to show their support.

According to Politico, that's because these groups, whether listeners know it or not, are paying high sponsorship fees to these programs for on-air plugs and promotional tie-ins that are often woven so seamlessly into the show that they don’t seem like advertisements. This practice was just exposed in a newly-published investigation by Politico into the history and business of these right-wing talk show endorsements.

“People don’t realize is that (big time political talk show hosts) are radio personalities—they are in the same business that people like Casey Kasem are in—and what they do is no different than people who broadcast from used car lots or restaurants or who endorse the local roofer or gardener,” Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of TALKERS Magazine, told Politico.

The Heritage Foundation has a sponsorship deal with Limbaugh’s and Hannity’s shows, while Beck endorses FreedomWorks and Levin has signed with Americans for Prosperity. The groups said that they sought out these hosts because they already preached a message similar to their own, and also because of the enduring power that right-wing talk radio. These shows shows “are really the vanguard of the conservative free market, freedom movement in America these days,” said Americans for Prosperity president Tim Phillips.

Heritage pioneered the sponsorship model back in 2008, partly in order to widen its appeal outside the beltway, says Politico. The group first paid $1.2 million to sponsor shows hosted by Hannity and Laura Ingraham, later dropping Ingraham in 2009 and striking a $3.3 million deal with Premiere Radio Networks which syndicated Limbaugh’s program and had acquired Hannity’s, with “roughly” $2 million going to the former show and $1.3 million to the latter.

FreedomWorks based their own deal with Beck off of Heritage’s sponsorship and in 2010 paid $1.4 million in “advertising services” to Rebecca Hagelin, who set up Heritage’s deals with Limbaugh and Hannity, and is now helping FreedomWorks “with several marketing initiatives, including Beck,” according to a spokesman.

Most of the deals give sponsorship groups a certain number of “live-reads,” in which the show’s host uses a script, outline, or specific set of talking points to deliver an ad for the group. Some deals also include “embedded ads,” in which the sponsor’s message is woven into the show. And these deals don’t just get advertisements for the sponsors, either—the hosts also make the point of defending the groups if they happen to come under fire in the news.

Some tea party leaders aren’t too pleased with the sponsorship arrangements, though, believing that “the deals smack of the pay-to-play politics that tea partiers allege has undermined the credibility of the conservative establishment,” says Politico. Other conservative figures fear that grassroots activists might not be aware of the financial terms behind the endorsements. “I wish more of the grassroots knew the reality that this wasn’t Rush or Sean or Beck saying these things out of the goodness of their hearts,” said one conservative leader.

Regardless, these groups’ sponsorships have clearly been worth the price of doing business. Heritage estimates that since signing with Hannity and Limbaugh two years ago, it has added 40,000 new memberships starting at the $25 level. FreedomWorks said that in the three months after its Beck sponsorship started in April 2010, its website had a huge spike in traffic which led to 50,000 new email sign-ups. The endorsement deal was also a “major part” of FreedomWorks nearly doubling its fundraising from $7.6 million in 2009 to $13.8 million in 2010. (Americans for Prosperity wouldn’t divulge any details of its Levin deal to Politico.)