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Payola to Rightwing Talk Shows?
GM Radio
by RALPH NADER

Just when one guesses that the standards and practices of national talk radio could go no lower, General Motors comes along to show the way to new lows.

Automotive News (August 6, 2007), the leading trade journal for the industry, reports that GM is wooing the radio stars. Its article led with the headline: “Puff Piece. Rush Limbaugh is one of the radio personalities GM is working with to talk up its vehicles.”

Reporter Mary Connelly writes that “GM says it doesn’t pay the stars directly for their endorsements, although it advertises on their shows. It gives them new GM cars and trucks to drive for two weeks each month. The company also invites the celebrities to Detroit for private meetings with top executives and VIP tours of GM facilities. The attention is paying off.”

Sam Mancuso, GM’s director of brand marketing alliances, told Ms. Connelly that his company made contact with 17 national radio hosts along with numerous local talk show personalities in cities such as Dallas and Los Angeles.

Mr. Mancuso is pleased with the results. The talkers are talking up GM vehicles on their programs—no doubt encouraged by GM’s ample advertising budget on those same stations.

He emphasized that GM does not give these radio celebrities any scripts. Which allows for the kind of impromptu creativity that he said reflects a “real emotional connection” with an audience that “knows they are being genuine.”

This is just what you need to know about a company’s engineered vehicles—words which flow from an emotional connection garnished with free use of vehicles and other freebies!

Take Rush Limbaugh’s effusions to his dittoheads: “GM has a ton of momentum,” he exhaled, “GM cars and trucks have never been better.” This assertion doesn’t tell his followers much, however, inasmuch as GM’s cars have never been hard acts to follow.

But the Rush doesn’t stop there. He waxes further: “They [GM] are working hard and they are thinking smart. Believe in General Motors, folks.”

Before you can aspire to do that, you have to believe in Limbaugh and all the other talkers – takers of GM’s largess. Atom Smasher, a modestly named Dallas disc jockey, was positively oozing on the air: “I am driving around in this Cadillac, and I am not going to want to give it back – the Cadillac SRX…. To all the guys at GM: Good job.”

His crosstown colleague, Chris Ryan, might as well have been crossing over to his advertising buddies and doing the ad. But this was not ad time. This was program time when he declared: “Have you seen all the cool things that’s going on at GM? I have. If you’re thinking about a new car, you got to look at GM.”

The auto industry has long been brazen when it comes to using its advertising clout. Way back when he was in Dayton, Ohio, Phil Donahue was cut off from car dealer ads after having a program on car dealer deception.

The Washington Post found local auto dealers going over to its smaller competitor, The Washington Star years ago, after a Post columnist tore into car dealer fraud. The dealers made it possible for the Star to start an auto puff section with their ads.

More than a few talk show hosts already read their station’s ads. That’s not enough. GM, viewing the inundation of product placements in movies, is pushing the envelope of advertising integration through talk radio program content.

What is surprising is that GM purportedly enlisted not only the expected suspects like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly but also Bill Press and Ed Schultz, know for their liberal views. Attempts to reach Press, Schultz and Hannity were unsuccessful. Surely, they will be explaining their relationship shortly.

In the radio music disc jockey world, taking such freebies would be considered payola to push songs. Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, such gifts would be illegal.

So, what about the talk radio arena? Good question. If the freebies are fully and regularly disclosed, then maybe there is a distinction between what is unlawful and what is unethical.

In any event, the FCC needs to investigate. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, later to become President in the nineteen twenties, called radio “a public trust.” He believed the public airwaves, being owned by the people, should convey no advertisements whatsoever.

What a gap between the arch-conservative, Herbert Hoover, and today’s so-called conservative talk show gabbers!

RALPH NADER is the author of The 17 Traditions.