Glenn Beck's syndicator runs a astroturf-on-demand call-in service for radio programs

Premiere On Call, a division of the Clear Channel subsidiary that distributes Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, is a service that hires actors to call into radio shows and read a script that purports to be a true story presented by the public. They bind their actors to confidentiality agreements, and disavow any involvement in fraud, saying "Premiere, like many other content providers, facilitates casting--while character and script development, and how the talent's contribution is integrated into programs, are handled by the varied stations."
The actors hired by Premiere to provide the aforementioned voice talents sign confidentiality agreements and so would not go on the record. But their accounts leave little room for doubt. All of the actors I questioned reported receiving scripts, calling in to real shows, pretending to be real people. Frequently, one actor said, the calls were live, sometimes recorded in advance, but never presented on-air as anything but real.

Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers Magazine, the talk-radio world's leading trade publication, said he knew nothing of this particular service but was not altogether surprised to hear that it was in place. There was, he said, a tradition of "creating fake phone calls for the sake of entertainment on some of the funny shows, shock jocks shows, the kind of shows you hear on FM music stations in the morning, they would regularly have scenarios, crazy scenarios of people calling up and doing pranks."

Radio Daze (via Making Light)

(Image: Astroturf, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from purpleslog's photostream)

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  1. They probably run Glenn Beck, too. “Mr. Beck, we need you to get outraged about X today. I know it’s a little short notice, but…”

  2. You mean Rush, Hannity, and Beck have to pay intelligent-sounding people to agree with them? Because no actually intelligent people could ever or would ever agree with them? Shocking…

  3. So do they call in to political shows, or just entertainment shows? They note that Premiere Radio Networks syndicates various political shows, but then the examples they give are all from shock jocks and the like. Is this how Phil Hendry gets his callers?

    It’s dishonest either way, but if they’re doing political calls it’s an order of magnitude more sleazy.

    You’d think that if the FCC cares about Payola, they’d care about this, right? Let’s hope so.

  4. Yes, these services do exist (I know someone who has a job making the calls!) They are usually given scripts to make funny calls, not political ones, but I’m sure that happens, too.

  5. Cory… after astroturfing my lawn, I’ve become so happy, so fulfilled. Astroturf bliss for ever.

  6. If someone purporting to do news knowingly represented them as average Americans, or as being other than a paid shill, this is fraud.

  7. As a fussy person who doesn’t like hearing radio commercials, I always tune in to public radio, npr, Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, etc.

    But when the uprisings started in Egypt, I tuned into Hannity out of curiosity. I just wanted to hear what they’d be saying. I’d never listened before.

    First of all, wall to wall commercials, an unbearable amount, many of them read by Hannity himself, in his used car salesman nasal sleezy salesguy voice (I worked for years with guys in the “sales department” who sounded just like him).

    Every single caller agreed with Hannity, gave the same talking points that he’d been spouting (Like a “Pew Survey” that revealed the majority of Egyptians prefer autocratic rule). The callers seemed to be seeking his approval for voicing the same opinions he had just given.

    At one point, Hannity referred to Egypt as a “little democracy that never bothered anyone.”

    One weird moment… a reporter on the ground in Egypt, surrounded by protesters, at the moment news went out that Mubarak was leaving. Hannity kept pressing him with questions that attempted to portray the protesters in a negative light, but the reporter (who apparently was new on the job) kept saying how great everyone was. I think Hannity was disappointed that the reporter couldn’t find anyone shouting death to america.

    When the reporter, who seemed caught up in the excitement, started to quote JFK’s line “Ich Bin Berliner”, trying to say that today we are all Egyptians, he got cut off suddenly.

    Hannity said something like “Hmm, we seem to have lost the connection,” then continued his monologue about the protesters all being muslim brotherhood types.

    Then he took a call from a woman, who expressed concern about the protesters and their ties to the muslim brotherhood.

      1. Are you asking for evidence that The Randi Rhodes Show is syndicated by Premiere Radio Networks or that right-wing blogs can do guilt by tenuous association and innuendo too? Either works for me.

  8. Remember Jim Dale, the voice actor who did all 146 voices for the Harry Potter audio book series? Maybe Clear Channel’s astroturfing service could hire one or two people like Dale. Sure, these would have to be prodigiously talented people, but it’s not like Clear Channel doesn’t have the money. Then, they’d only have to train and pay two actors. Win-win! The rest of the labor pool would be freed to do useful work like read stories to kindergartners at schools and libraries, or wait tables.

    Other idea: equip the homeless with unlimited calltime cell phones that spoof the phone numbers that astroturfers are expected to use. These cell phones would only be capable of dialing out to Clear Channel call-in shows. Tie up the lines. Get the conversation of the rails. Saturate the switchboard. “Will culture jam for food” will be the best new trend to hit soup kitchens and shelters. Um, unless the switchboard itself doesn’t exist, and all those “callers” are just actors on-air in the next studio over, with phone call sfx…

  9. Like this is surprising. The Democratic party and left-liberal interest groups do it too. They’re called “seminar calls” and both sides do it.

    Tempest in a teapot. Even if scripted… what’s the content of the call. Anyone with critical thinking skills can discern the BS from the not BS. Most of those folks live in echo chambers anyway… they don’t read a wide variety of political opinion like BB readers.

    1. “The Democratic party and left-liberal interest groups do it too. They’re called “seminar calls” and both sides do it.”

      Prove it. Or do you expect us to just take your almighty word ? You, Wally, and a couple of others are good for non-stop equivocating among the right and left, when anyone with half a brain can see that the majority of dirty tricks are coming from those on the right side of the aisle, primarily because they can get the corporations and moneyed-class to do their bidding, and vice-versa.

  10. It’s generally known that the Tea Party started out this way– A conservative-funded PR firm paid actors to show up at town hall meetings, disrupt the proceedings and get themselves filmed doing it.

    They hire people to do this kind of crap online too. They pop up in the comments sections just like this one, spewing the usual right-wing propaganda and trying to pass it off as public opinion.

  11. The headline is 100% true, but a wee bit misleading. Is it guilt or guilt by association? i.e.

    Cory Doctorow’s book publisher runs a DRM extortion unit targeted at libraries.

    100% true (and I only know it because you were honest enough to disclose it), but quite misleading.

    If I’m going to hate Beck, I’d like it to be a fair and honest hate.

  12. Jean Baudrillard would be proud. The invisible death of reality presents/conceals itself in so many, many ways.

  13. I’m shocked, shocked I tell you! This causes great cognitive dissonance, and makes me question the very nature of reality. If one cannot trust Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, then there is nothing in the world that one can believe.

    Well, at least we have the virtuous beacons of truth and virtue at Fox News….

  14. In case there’s anyone left in America who doesn’t know it: pro-wrestling and talk radio are both entertainment.

  15. I used to work in politics and this is very, very common, both by Democrats and Republicans (and their various like-minded pundits). It’s common knowledge that many/most callers are fakes. Look at it this way: a good question essentially functions as engaging, effective and FREE advertising. Campaigns call in to ask unflattering questions of their opponents, too.

    In today’s media-soaked environment, a campaign that didn’t do this would be considered negligent.

  16. I suppose this doesn’t surprise me, but there’s one part of this story, as it’s presented, that I don’t understand.

    1. Premiere On Call (POC) provides acting talent to radio stations.
    2. Shows can utilize the service to bring on actors as callers, among other things.
    3. POC is part of Premiere Radio Networks and is connected to ClearChannel.
    4. PRN distributes Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, among others.

    I can see how there could be a connection between POC and Limbaugh/Beck/et al. Certainly there’s a possibility that all of these shows are utilizing POC and have brought on actors to pose as callers with interesting stories.

    But I don’t see where that has happened…? I read the article on Tablet Mag and kept waiting to see the shoe drop, but it never did.

    Has anyone come forward to say that he or she was an actor who placed calls into the more controversial shows and named the shows?

    Like I said, it wouldn’t surprise me. That’s why I am wondering if that has been brought out anywhere.

  17. American politics follows the ‘Two Kirks’ model. One side thinks it’s James T. Kirk, swaggers around, and gives orders, whereas the other side has to do everything it can to *appear* to be James T. Kirk, so that Spock won’t shoot it with a phaser. Which is where the think-tanks come in.

  18. This isn’t some kind of sinister media manipulation. It’s showbiz.

    Shill calling has been going on for decades, and it has little or nothing to do with political talk radio. I can’t guarantee that issue-oriented talk doesn’t use shills, but I can say from experience that over 90% of shill callers are used for comedy.

    One of the dirty little secrets of radio is that pulling off truly funny wacky hijinks takes a huge amount of planning and preparation, and almost every great bit is scripted from start to finish. You simply can’t rely on funny stuff just happening- you have to make sure it happens on a regular basis or you’re in the unemployment line. Enter the shill caller, one of the most effective and entertaining ways to launch a bit. In smaller markets the shills are usually interns or friends of the host. As market size increases the level of professionalism rises as well, creating a need for skilled voice actors that can help lay the groundwork for something that needs to sound real to be truly entertaining.

    Premiere On Call is simply the largest corporate provider of shills, but there are literally dozens of companies that provide the service. They’ll set you up with actor for your own bits, and some offer both voice talent and pre-written bits for when you’re having a slow day. It’s about as deceptive as an actor on stage pretending he’s *really* the king of England.

    1. It’s interesting to find out about this service for comedy radio but it’s a deceptive article to imply political talk shows use the tactic. Sadly there is no shortage of real people who base their identities on Rush/Beck/Hannity. The screening process on the political shows ensure that mostly like minded people actually get on the radio. It’s only once in a while that someone slips through screening who can actually challenge the right wing host – like this one:

      http://www.examiner.com/political-buzz-in-national/rush-limbaugh-caller-points-out-reagan-raised-taxes-granted-amnesty-audio

      1. You won’t get any argument from me that a call screeners job is to make the host look good.

        Given that, the totally evidence free accusation of “astroturf-on-demand” is even more absurd. You don’t need shills when you have a sharp screener at work. Ideally, he’s fully aware of what the intended topics of discussion are and will choose callers appropriately. That’s how showbiz works, and talk radio is most definitely showbiz.

        How the factual observation that “DJ’s use actors in their bits” somehow morphed into “the insidious right wing conspiracy uses actors to set the agenda” simply boggles the mind.

  19. 4th grade grammar alert:
    use “an” rather than “a” before “astroturf” in the headline;)

  20. I do think the title and the article is disingenuous. The service is to match up voice talent with shock-jock style radio shows.

    Premieres site explicitly mentions that the service is not use by news or political shows and specifically mentions it is not used by Back, Limbaugh and Hannity.

  21. Same thing with “shill calling” as a search. It got this page and a few things like Prison Planet where they discuss batshit conspiracy theories.

    Nope, sorry but I’m not convinced that “both sides do it”. Another good reason is that “both sides do it” is a stock answer for conservative apologists. Come up with something better.

    Now I’m seeing botz around every corner. Gotta get a grip. Gave the kids a lecture on bots today – then we opened emacs and xdoctor to background the memory sticks with preloaded identities.

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