Bankrolling Tea Party radio

In the expansive and fragmented media universe, each of us can find the news and entertainment we want.  And, if you have the money, you can make sure others have access to your favorite news, views, and entertainment as well.  Conservatives have been more aggressive on this front than liberals, particularly on the radio.

At Politico, Kenneth P. Vogel and Mackenzie Weinger file a fascinating report on the millions spent by organized conservative groups on radio commercials.  Such groups, including FreedomWorks, the Heritage Foundation, and Americans for Prosperity have invested heavily buying ads on the programs of popular conservative hosts, including Glenn Beck (at right!), Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and (of course) Rush Limbaugh.  There is nothing particularly new about this, or really very shocking.  The radio business is, after all, a business, and broadcasters make money by playing–and reading–advertising copy.  For hyper-popular hosts, it’s even more than this: syndication deals for the stars allow them to sell some of their advertising slots themselves.

We should not think that any of these hosts would read ads for causes and groups they dislike any more than we should doubt their commitments to the discount furniture and mattress stores they also promote.  Minimally, the groups get the ad space to promote themselves and their causes, and these promotions may induce some listeners to contribute or buy memberships.  (Whether this is advertising money well spent is a matter of dispute within these groups; apparently, it was one of many issues that led to Dick Armey’s armed and paid separation from FreedomWorks.)

What else do they get?  The hosts make money on ads and, at least sometimes, display their agreement with–or gratitude to–their sponsors by showing up at events.  I don’t mean to suggest that these radio personalities put their politics up for sale; it’s hard to imagine Planned Parenthood, say, advertising on Glenn Beck’s show, or having Beck show up at one of their fundraisers.  But the ideological alignment between the popular host and FreedomWorks is polished with large checks.  (Politico reports that at least some times, hosts alter their political judgments as they lose some sponsors and take on new others.)

Does any of this matter?  It makes sense for advocacy groups to invest in promoting themselves, their preferred view of the world–maybe even their version of the facts, and more generally, in changing the culture.  The right (right!) radio show provides access to an audience that is likely to be congenial and a host who has every incentive to be friendly.  It’s a lot of money, much more than many activist groups could consider spending, but not compared to television advertising.  And it may be a more direct pay-off than investing in lobbying or grassroots mobilization.  (Of course, all of these groups spend large sums on those efforts as well.)

Does it matter?  It’s hard for me to imagine any of these hosts taking issue with the Koch Brothers, for example, spending big money to promote their political ideals–even if they weren’t buying ads that directly lined the pockets of the hosts.  That they do buy such ads makes it even less likely.  What the advertising does is stroke media allies of conservative groups while stoking their audiences.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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