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.
“We approach it the way anyone approaches advertising: where is our audience that wants to buy what you sell?” Genevieve Wood, Heritage’s vice president for operations and marketing. “And their audiences obviously fit that model for us. They promote conservative ideas and that’s what we do.”
Last month, in the midst of a flurry of scrutiny of GOP presidential candidates’ stances on health insurance mandates similar to one included in the 2010 Democratic healthcare overhaul, Limbaugh took to the airwaves to defend Heritage’s past support for such a proposal.
“The Heritage Foundation to this day says they are being impugned and misrepresented in terms of their advocacy for such a thing,” Limbaugh said, explaining that the venerable think tank “abandoned the idea once they saw it implemented” and realized “it doesn’t work.”
Limbaugh, who has been a paid Heritage endorser since 2009, said the reversal did nothing to detract from the “profound … respect for Heritage. Heritage is the gold standard. Heritage was every bit as involved in Reaganism as Reagan was, and nothing’s changed.”
Levin, whose endorsement deal with the tea party organizing group Americans for Prosperity started last summer, was similarly protective of his sponsor last year after President Barack Obama singled out the group in making the case that anonymously funded attack ads were distorting the midterm elections.
“Americans for Prosperity is a magnificent organization that people join voluntarily. You. Me,” Levin said on his syndicated radio show. Obama, Levin continued, “wants you to hate Americans for Prosperity. So if he wants you to hate it, then you should embrace it, and promote it, and support it and join it, because it’s effective.”
Beck, lavishing praise on FreedomWorks’s new social network website this year, seemed to acknowledge the blurriness of the line between his show’s content and messages paid for by advertisers.
“This is a new thing from FreedomWorks and by the way, they are sponsor of this program and I have a commercial to do for them in, well, in just a few minutes. I don’t think they’re going to get one because this is pretty much it,” he said on his show, in a clip that’s posted on his personal website. “But it is something that I believe in, I’m not saying this because they’re paying me to do a commercial in a couple of minutes. This is something that I think is absolutely critical.”
To be sure, the hosts’ political perspectives dovetail with those of their endorsees and their paid sponsorships do not preclude them from discussing – or even praising – other groups.
And 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 ofgold, generally, and the precious metals retailer that sponsored his show, Goldline, specifically.
That prompted liberals – led by now-embattled Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner – to accuse Beck and, to a lesser extent, other conservative talk show hosts sponsored by gold retailers, of using misleading fear-mongering tactics “to cheat consumers.”
The increased willingness of non-profits to write big checks for such radio endorsements – which appears to have started in 2008, when Heritage paid $1.2 million to sponsor the talk shows hosted by Hannity and Laura Ingraham – seems to be a primarily, if not entirely, a conservative phenomenon.
That’s perhaps attributable to the enduring power of talk radio on the right, as well as a newer development, the explosion of grassroots engagement by tea partiers and other newly mobilized Republican activists, which has spurred a competition for grass roots support – and contributions – among conservative groups.
Heritage estimates that it in each of the past two years, its sponsorships with Limbaugh and Hannity brought in more than 40,000 new memberships starting at the $25 level, while FreedomWorks said that in the three months after its Beck sponsorship started in April 2010, the group saw a huge spike in traffic to its website (which featured a photo of Beck linked to a fundraising appeal), resulting in 50,000 new email sign-ups.
Americans for Prosperity wouldn’t divulge any details about its sponsorship of Levin, but board member Art Pope said the endorsement “makes AfP’s position on issues and policies more widely known and it also does attract grassroots activists or potential donors to AfP.”
The groups pay the companies that distribute the hosts’ shows, and not the hosts directly, for the endorsements.
While the deals differ, most provide the sponsoring group a certain number of messages or so called “live-reads,” in which the host will use a script, outline or set of talking points to deliver an advertisement touting the group and encouraging listeners to visit its website or contribute to it.
Some sponsorship deals also include so-called “embedded ads” in which the sponsors’ initiatives are weaved into the content of the show, say sources familiar with the arrangements, while the hosts have been known to feature officials from their sponsoring groups on their shows, though the sources say that’s not typically part of the arrangements.
But officials with the groups stress that they sought out the hosts because they were already ideologically in sync with their causes.
When Americans for Prosperity was looking for an endorser, its president Tim Phillips said on a member phone call last year featuring Levin and unveiling the partnership “we looked at talk radio, who are really the vanguard of the conservative free market, freedom movement in America these days.
“And among all those folks, the one guy we really singled out and said we want to work with him is Mark, Mark Levin. Because he stands for what we believe in.” (Pope put it slightly differently, telling POLITICO “We were involved in discussions and conversations with several and reached an agreement with Mark Levin.”)
After announcing FreedomWorks’ sponsorship of Beck last year, Kibbe told POLITICO “as far as fits go, this is a good one. This is a guy who talks about (free-market economist and libertarian hero Friedrich August) Hayek on his show.”
Still, Kibbe said “it was a long, long conversation to sell him on the idea of FreedomWorks as a group.”
And a source close to Beck’s production company, Mercury Radio Arts, said “The important thing is not whether the company is a non-profit involved in politics, selling flowers or protecting hard-drives, it is whether Glenn believes in them, and he believes the listener benefits from FreedomWorks and his radio show’s other clients.”
For instance, when General Motors accepted federal bailout money, Beck ended his sponsorship agreement with the company, the source said.
But the endorsements of the big national conservative groups, in particular, have prompted grumbling from leaders of smaller non-profits, who say the deals smack of the pay-to-play politics that tea partiers allege has undermined the credibility of the conservative establishment.
For instances, Beck’s deal created some ill will among activists affiliated with the 9.12 Project, an all-volunteer, unfunded tea party-esque group Beck himself had started more than one year before he agreed to endorse FreedomWorks.
“Ads on Glenn’s show may take you a long way, but it is FreedomWorks’ actions that form its reputation and will be the deciding factor in whether the ‘boots on the ground’ actually choose to work with you,” wrote a 9.12 Project leader named Stephani Scruggs in a July email to FreedomWorks officials with whom she was working to promote tea party activities.
Leaders of other conservative groups worry that better-funded groups are able to use their deep pockets to gain further advantage through the sponsorships, and that grassroots activists – particularly newer ones – may not be entirely aware of the monetary side of the partnerships.
“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 the leader of one group who inquired about ads on various radio shows, but decided they were both too expensive and ethically suspect. “If the grassroots found out that these guys were getting paid seven figures a year to say this stuff, it might leave a bad taste in their mouth.”
Heritage pioneered the sponsorships in 2008 partly as a way to broaden its appeal outside the Beltway. In 2009, it dropped Ingraham and added Limbaugh, and – according to its tax forms – paid $3.3 million to Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicated Limbaugh’s show and also had picked up Hannity’s show.
“We decided ‘let’s go with the largest audiences,’ which are Rush and Sean,” said Heritage’s Wood. While she wouldn’t provide the precise breakdown, Wood said it’s roughly – but not “exactly” – accurate to say Limbaugh’s sponsorship cost $2 million and Hannity’s cost $1.3 million in 2009, and that the rates remained similar last year.
FreedomWorks’s deal with Beck, which started on a trial basis last April “was kind of based on what Heritage does with Rush Limbaugh,” Kibbe told POLITICO last summer.
FreedomWorks’s 2010 tax filings, released this month, show $1.4 million in payments for “advertising services” to Rebecca Hagelin Communications and Marketing.
Hagelin – a former Heritage official whose online biography calls her “the architect of Heritage’s 2008 national radio campaign with Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and the 2009 partnership with Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh” – “is helping us with several marketing initiatives, including Beck,” said FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon.
Though Brandon wouldn’t say how much of the payment to Hagelin went towards the Beck sponsorship, he called the endorsement “a major part” of FreedomWorks nearly doubling its fundraising between 2009, when it raised $7.6 million, and 2010, when it pulled in $13.8 million.
Beck’s listeners are “passionate and active” and have become known around FreedomWorks as the group’s “shock troops,” Brandon said.
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