Talk Radio and Sponsorship by Advocacy Groups

Does Limbaugh love the Heritage Foundation because of their ideas or their check book?

Via Politico:  Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck sell endorsements to conservative groups

If you’re a regular listener of Glenn Beck’s radio show and you wanted to contribute to a political group that would advance the populist conservative ideals he touts on his show, you’d have plenty of reason to think that FreedomWorks was your best investment.

But if you’re a fan of Mark Levin’s radio show, you’d have just as much cause to believe that Americans for Prosperity, a FreedomWorks rival, was the most effective conservative advocacy group. And, if Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity are who you listen to, you’d be hearing a steady stream of entreaties to support the important work of the Heritage Foundation.

That’s not coincidence. In search of donations and influence, the three prominent conservative groups are paying hefty sponsorship fees to the popular talk show hosts. Those fees buy them a variety of promotional tie-ins, as well as regular on-air plugs – praising or sometimes defending the groups, while urging listeners to donate – often woven seamlessly into programming in ways that do not seem like paid advertising.

“The point that people don’t realize,” said Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of the talk media trade publication TALKERS Magazine, “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.”

The Heritage Foundation pays about $2 million to sponsor Limbaugh’s show and about $1.3 million to do the same with Hannity’s – and considers it money well spent.

Look, if groups want to pay for advertisement and if radio shows want to sell them, more power to them.   Still, I think this situation underscores what consumers of talk radio need to understand:  these are businesses looking to turn a profit, even if the talkers in question act as those they are, instead, prophets of politics.  At a minimum, this needs to be taken into consideration if one is taking all (or a substantial portion) of one’s knowledge of politics from talk radio.   If you listen to be entertained, all well and good.  If you listen as a main way of forming your political opinion, let the consumer beware.

The problem is that the way that radio talk show hosts sell their sponsors to their listeners is to act, at least in the commercials if not in the main body of their programs, as if they really, really the product, although the real reason they are so enthused is because, well, they are paid to be such.  Indeed, they often speak as if they liked the product all along and it is jut a happy coincidence that the company chose them to advertise.   Over the years I can remember Rush being a huge enthusiast for products like Snapple, Sleep Number Beds, and Lumber Liquidators.  I recall, back in the 1990s, Limbaugh talking about Snapple constantly, and yet one could tell when the sponsorship was over with as the mentions pretty much went away.

A more recent example, and one mentioned in the piece, is the way in which Glenn Beck’s rhetoric dovetailed so well with his sponsorship by gold brokers:

the integration of sponsors and their causes into the content of conservative talkers’ shows is not unique to advocacy groups and think tanks, as Beck demonstrated in 2009 when he melded his frequent warnings of impending economic collapse with his promotion of gold, generally, and the precious metals retailer that sponsored his show, Goldline, specifically.

It is not difficult to see how lucrative deals with advocacy groups/think tanks might follow a similar pattern.  The argument is, of course, that it is a just a happy coincidence that the group and the host can find a mutually beneficial relationship.  However, it sounds a whole lot like selling Snapple to me.

The problem to me is this:  it is preferable, I should think, for people to adhere to political ideas and policy proposals because said ideas and proposals make logical sense, not because it was endorsed in a commercial by a talk radio host.   Further, it is pretty clear that if a given host is going to be paid millions by one group, that said host is more likely in non-commercial situations, to favor that group’s proposals over the proposals of other groups.  I suspect that if I was being paid millions a year to write text advertisements for the Heritage Foundation that that would likely have some effect on my general writing.  If anything, I would be paying a lot more attention, under such circumstances, to Heritage and a lot less to, say, Freedomworks, yes?

Understand:  I don’t think that there is anything unethical going on here.   Rather, I just think that it underscores what talk radio is:  an entertainment business.  It is not an honest broker of political ideas and one has to realize that things said on these shows are done to entertain audiences (and therefore attract listeners) and please their sponsors.

To answer my own question:  “Does Limbaugh love the Heritage Foundation because of their ideas or their check book?” I say that it is quite possible that he loves Heritage independently of their cash, but once the money is introduced it certainly adds a new variable to equation.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Tsar Nicholas II says:

    It’s the money. The irony is that so many of those “dittoheads” out there are such mindless sheep they won’t be able even to grasp the irony. That said, I’m certainly not begrudging Limbaugh, et al. You have to give them a lot of credit. They’ve turned what should by all rights have been a complete non-starter and made it into a big, profitable business for themselves. Bully for them.

  2. mantis says:

    Obviously Beck likes FreedomWorks, but not Heritage or Americans for Prosperity, because of their ideas, not the money.

    Obviously Levin likes Americans for Prosperity, but not Heritage or FreedomWorks, because of their ideas, not the money.

    Obviously Limbaugh and Hannity like Heritage, but not FreedomWorks or Americans for Prosperity, because of their ideas, not the money.

    I mean come on, these are serious thinkers, and their alliances with certain conservative think tanks are borne of deep conviction and intellectual inquiry. It has nothing to do with the cash at all!

  3. bains says:

    Still, I think this situation underscores what consumers of talk radio need to understand: these are businesses looking to turn a profit, even if the talkers in question act as those they are, instead, prophets of politics.

    And how is this different than any other news/entertainment provider? All rely upon some form of benefactor, and that benefactor necessarily has to be accepting of the content of that which they sponsor. All the letter networks, all the cable networks, all the daily’s, all the periodicals depend upon this. In fact, do you think the cables would continue to pay for C-Span if they disagreed with the content?

    What I find interesting in this silly discussion is how only talk radio is the subject in question. PBS, NPR, BBC, and many others depend on a government teat for sustenance, yet that patronage is by far better hidden than any open Heritage ad buys. Finally, talk radio is far less insidious in intentionally spreading disinformation than say Pravda, or the NYTimes which unquestioningly published Walter Duranty and Jason Blair, and a host of other clearly agenda driven writers. Talk radio is commentary, and I know of no host that portraits their content as anything other than opinion and commentary.

  4. Eric Florack says:

    I would point out, as someone that listened to him in the very early days, Limbigh has been on the same page with Heritage even before they heard of each other.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    And how many of the leftie talking heads take money from Soros and the unions?
    Or wasn’t I supposed to mention that?