The Rise of Right-Wing Radio Payola

When former FreedomWorks chairman Dick Armey complained to Media Matters last week that the Tea Party group had wasted money when it paid Glenn Beck and Rush to say “nice things” about the organization on the air, Armey sounded a lot like a record label executive bemoaning the high cost of radio promotion.

Armey protested that in making the payments to the high-profile talkers, FreedomWorks was “spending too damn much” and “getting too little value out of it.” The former House majority leader didn't know the details of Limbaugh's contract, but said Beck had been paid at least $1 million last year to help the organization fundraise, an effort internal FreedomWorks documents reveal garnered the organization roughly $850,000 (not including some third party event ticket sales).

He wouldn't be the first chairman to second-guess dubious marketing or branding efforts. But in singling out the amorphous payments made to the radio shows, Armey raised questions about what the conservative group was doing showering the two programs with so much money in exchange for on-air flattery and on-air promotion.

That sounds an awful lot like payola.

It's true payola is most often associated with hit radio stations and the long-standing tradition of music industry middlemen known as indies funneling record company money to radio stations in exchange for on-air spins for new singles. But the fact is, the payola statute in America makes it a crime for radio stations to receive anything of value, like record company promotional payments, if they fail to disclose that relationship with listeners.

And what are some top-rated, right-wing radio shows now doing? They're receiving hefty payments from the likes of FreedomWorks and not always being fully transparent about getting paid to say those nice things.

In the music industry, the practice of paying off programmers and radio stations in exchange for airplay has been known as “pay-for-play.” On right-wing talk radio, players seem to be practicing a deceptive game of pay-for-say.

In 2011, Politico detailed the huge payments groups like FreedomWorks and the Heritage Foundation were making to far-right radio shows, in exchange for the shows weaving the groups' initiatives into the daily program.

The relationships seemed to be built on deception [emphasis added]:

"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 [conservative] 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."

As writer David Frum stressed in the wake of the Politico article:  

Understand: We are not talking about commercials, separated from the main flow of editorial content. Heritage work is embedded and inserted directly into the editorial flow of the Limbaugh program, as if selected without regard to the money paid. 


 The endorsements often obscure the paid-for nature of the broadcaster's endorsement.

Again, that's akin to payola, of radio receiving promotional payments of value, payments that directly impact the programming, and not informing listeners.

I'm not suggesting anyone ought to be charged with payola, since nobody has been prosecuted for that crime in this country in decades. Even after major music companies admitted to payola infractions several years ago, the Federal Communication Commission, which has jurisdiction over the American airwaves, continued to show little interest in the issue.

Plus, even though the conservative leader quoted in the Politico piece suggested listeners didn't realize certain hosts were being paid “seven figures” to talk up right-wing sponsors, the hosts do provide minimal disclosures.

Yet the payola comparison remains an apt one I think, because it highlights what's essentially a con being played on conservative radio listeners by radio hosts and well-funded groups like FreedomWorks.

Just like hit music radio stations don't want to interrupt the flow of their programming to admit to listeners that they're play particular songs because record companies directly paid them a promotional fee, talk radio shows don't want to pull back the curtain and routinely admit they're on the take from deep-pocketed group.

The shows don't want to admit that there's a closed loop where Beck listeners, for instance, send donations to FreedomWorks, and FreedomWorks then writes a large check to Beck's show so it will help convince listeners to give more money to FreedomWorks, so it can write Beck's show another check.