"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s good to be Alex Jones. Matt Drudge, the conservative Web entrepreneur and news aggregator, proved prophetic when he predicted that 2013 would be “the year of Alex Jones.” The longtime conspiracy broadcaster is finally breaking into the mainstream consciousness after a buzzy interview with Piers Morgan and his Boston bombing conspiracy, and traffic to his websites has never been higher. The conspiracy business is booming.
And make no mistake, it is a business. That’s not to say that Jones isn’t a believer — there are easier ways to make money — but Jones has built a multi-platform new media empire in his Austin, Texas, Free Speech Systems LLC that reaches millions of believers and promises advertisers that it will “direct lucrative buyers to you from our daily audience of active enthusiasts.” And all told, Jones is very likely raking in millions.
Jones didn’t invent the business model, but he may have perfected it. He comes from a long line of what historian Robert Goldberg calls “conspiracy entrepreneurs” that stretches back through at least the early Red Scare, and up through the John Birch Society, the JFK assassination and the Roswell incident to the Jones school of the New World Order. But while others merely got by on the sale of their books and tapes and lectures to a niche audience, Jones has industrialized conspiracy for a mass audience.
Jones’ company broadcasts around the clock from his state-of-the art, 7,600-square-foot radio and TV studio that employs 15 people and cleared $1.5 million in revenue in 2009, according to a Texas Monthly profile. But a lot has changed since then. In 2011, he launched the Infowars Nightly News TV program to anchor his new subscriber TV network, which has expanded its lineup as traffic to his websites and general visibility has exploded, meaning his revenue is probably much bigger than it was just four years ago.
How big? We consulted half a dozen experts in online, radio and video marketing to ask them to make educated guesses based on publicly available information — and while the numbers are educated estimates, they suggest that rather than crazy, Jones may be crazy like a fox. What’s clear is that he’s savvy and moved adroitly to capitalize on a market that he helped create, impressing every one of our experts with his strategy of developing a loyal cadre of fans who are probably responsible for the bulk of his income. So follow along as we try to put price tags on the disparate colonies of the Alex Jones empire.
Jones has a a lot of revenue streams, from T-shirt sales to lectures, but let’s start with the websites. Eric Covino, the president and founder of Creative Signals, a digital marketing, SEO and online P.R. agency, took a look at the numbers for Jones’ Infowars.com from an industry tool called SemRush and came up with a revenue estimate for Salon. “I don’t think it’s double-digit millions but I would guesstimate that it’s somewhere between 3-6 million per year based on the traffic numbers and the brand loyalty,” he said.
Covino noted that Jones benefits from “multiple levels of monetization” in the types of ads he offers, and also from “not only a huge following but also a fiercely loyal one,” which helps boosts his rankings in search engines. “It’s a great study in what passion can do for a site,” he added.
We can even calculate that number a more traditional way as well, so bear with us as we show our math. Online traffic numbers are notoriously slippery to measure, but the closest thing to an industry standard is the data provided by a company called comScore, which estimated that Jones’ Infowars.com received 2.14 million unique visitors and 20 million page views in February, the most recent month available. PrisonPlanet.com, Jones’ other major site, got a little less than half of that.
The brochure that Jones provides to potential advertisers is a bit more bullish, but not too far off, saying Infowars gets “over 3 million” unique visitors per month and “over 20 million” page views. PrisonPlanet, according to Jones, gets more than 1.5 million unique visitors and 8 million page views. And Jones has Drudge to thank for much of this, as the conservative news site is Infowars’ top referrer, responsible for over 9 percent of the traffic driven to the site.
Knowing this, the main variable remaining is Jones’ average effective CPM (cost per impression). This is the standard industry measure of what advertisers pay for each 1,000 times an ad is displayed to a reader. (Jones actually uses networks like Google AdWords, so he gets paid per click, so we’ll call this his “effective” CPM.) The average CPM for a news site ranges from $4-$7, but can go much higher, depending on the site.
Stay with us here. David Steinberg, CEO of the New York-based digital ad agency XL Marketing, estimated Jones’ effective CPM is probably around $5, which he calculates to produce a significantly lower number than Covino’s, at between $1 million and $1.2 million per year. There’s also YouTube, where Jones has almost 545,000 subscribers, but while some people have made big bucks on the video service, a prominent YouTube monetization consultant pegged Jones’ revenue from the site at just $34,590 a year.
But, Steinberg said, the websites may not be the point. “He’s using the site primarily to feed people back to his shows, which is probably where he generates more of his revenue,” he said. For instance, Jones uses his prime ad position, the top right corner of the page, to advertise his own show, suggesting “he thinks it’s more valuable for his brand to be pushing himself in that piece of real estate versus other advertisers.”
So how well does Jones’ show do? For that, we need to go down the rabbit hole of talk radio economics. Our guide will be Bill Figenshu, who has nearly 40 years of experience in the talk radio business, including senior executive positions at CBS, Viacom and Citadel, and now consults for the industry.
The first thing you need to know about the talk radio business, Figenshu says, is that just five people — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Laura Ingraham and Michael Savage — capture close to 80 percent of all the national network listening. They’re in every single one of the country’s 308 media markets, while Alex Jones’ show reaches about 80. That’s pretty good, but “he’s not getting rich” off of it alone, explained Figenshu.
Here’s how it works: The host gets to sell five commercials per hour, while the local stations, which generally pay nothing for the content, get to the rest. People like Beck or Limbaugh in all 308 markets can charge $4,000-$6,000 per commercial, which works out to $15 million a year on the low end, but the numbers drop “way, way off” after that.
Jones probably is looking at ad rates of about $100-$200 per spot, Figenshu said. If we say $100, to be safe, that works out to $2,000 a day for his four-hour show, or $500,000 a year. But after you pay the network that syndicates your show and other costs, the host generally walks away with less than half of the net — so we’re down to as little as $215,000 personally. “It’s not chicken feed, but it’s nowhere near the Glenn Beck territory,” Figenshu says.
These market forces help explain why Jones is who he is today, Figenshu says. Jones is following a tried and true talk radio strategy: “Get attention by coming up with the most outrageous stuff. His job is to jump up and down and say look at me, look at me! And any time you call attention to yourself, your ratings shoot through the roof.”
“I always tell [one of my clients] that the best thing you can do for yourself is a public execution,” he quipped. Of course, the downside with this strategy is that you end up on “do not buy” lists from mainstream companies who don’t want to be associated with controversial hosts, but Jones was never going to be non-controversial anyway.
But as with the websites, Jones radio show is really “just a means to an end,” Figenshu said. The pot at the end of this rainbow for Jones is the booming world of paid subscribers, the same thing Jones’ sometimes-rival Glenn Beck is building his even bigger empire on. For just $5.95 a month, or $54.95 a year, you too can have unlimited access to Jones’ ever expanding world of streamed content on PrisonPlanet.tv.
The beauty of paid subscriptions is that the money is all yours. There’s no syndicator or ad network to split revenue with, no advertisers to deal with, and no contracts that limit your rights to your own content. After a 3 percent fee to Mastercard or Visa, the remaining 97 percent is all yours and you have complete control.
We can’t know how many paid subscribers Jones has, but even if just 2.5 percent of the 2 million-plus people who visit his site every month subscribe, that’s still pushing $4 million a year. If 1 percent are paying members, then we’re down to $1.5 million, but if 5 percent are, then we’re talking about nearly $8 million a year.
And Jones’ entire ethos is tailor-made for appealing to a die-hard group of core listeners. As Betsy Woodruff wrote at the National Review, Jones is best understood not as as “your everyday screed-monger. Rather, he’s an evangelist, and he’s looking for converts, and, judging by the size of his audience, he’s pretty good at making them.” Jones commands a loyalty that any brand would be envious of, and by casting himself as the sole voice of Truth and salvation in a fallen world where everyone else is corrupted and untrustworthy, he draws his fans deeper into his fold.
Radio people call these hardcore fans P1 listeners and they are always the most coveted, as they’re responsible for a disproportionate amount of your value to advertisers, and thus revenue. But Jones has turned growing his base of P1′s — and then milking them for all they’re worth — into a high art form, Figenshu said. No one does this better, except for perhaps Beck.
Again, the economics explain Jones’ “crazy” behavior: He doesn’t care what you think about him — he only cares about his P1′s and people who might become P1′s one day, so the incentive is always to bring some new salacious conspiracy to keep his core fans hooked. This is why every disaster is a “false flag” attack and why every item in the New York Times could be new evidence of the globalists’ nefarious plot.
This is typical of conspiracy entrepreneurs, said Goldberg. “Once they’ve panned for gold in one conspiracy theory and then that one runs out, they move to another one, then they try to connect them, or you feed new details and new suppositions to keep up interest and excitement,” he told Salon.
It’s not that they don’t believe what they’re preaching — Goldberg said most conspiracy entrepreneurs he’s interviewed seem like genuine believers — but this a place where the psychology and economics line up. To maintain belief, theorists have to constantly expand the number of conspirators as people debunk their theories, and that happens to also be good for the bottom line. Thus you end up with Jones’ vision of a massive worldwide conspiracy involving almost every powerful person in the world, the media, the scientific establishment and even Justin Bieber.
And when it comes to monetizing the P1′s, paid subscriptions are just the start of it. Jones has made at least 14 films, written several books, and publishes a magazine, all of which are on sale at the Infowars store, along with a whole range of “prepper” products, from survival seed banks to water filtration systems that remove fluoride from the water (globalist poison). Naturally, you can also buy Infowars T-shirts, mugs, tote bags, bumper stickers and even skateboards and New World Order playing cards.
And like other radio hosts, Jones even gets a cut of the sales of products that he advertises. That promo code radio hosts are always telling you to input when you buy food insurance or gold? That’s to let the company know that Jones or Beck sent them so they can cut them a check.
“You become the huckster of all trades,” Figenshu says, “and the money at that level starts to get nuts.” Sadly, we have no way of estimating Jones’ revenue from all of these ancillary products.
The P1 strategy also explains Jones’ fascination with starting a social network, which currently exists in a beta form and includes everything from a dating service to a forum where preppers can swap tips. The more Jones keeps people inside his orbit, the more opportunities he has to sell them stuff.
So let’s go back to the scoreboard and try to add up our inexact, educated guesstimate into a grand total. On the very low end, we’d estimate a little over $1 million for Web, $215,000 for radio, and $1.5 million for paid subscribers for a not-too-shabby $2.7 million a year. On the high end, if we assume he pulls in the maximum $6 million on Web, another $450,000 on the radio (if his ad rates are at the top of their possible window), and he has 2.5 percent of his website visitors paying to subscribe, then we’re talking about more than $10 million a year. And none of this includes book sales, merch, speaking tours, promotional tie-ins, book and DVD royalties or any other revenue streams that might exist.
So the next time you want to dismiss Jones as crazy, ask yourself how many people would pay $5.95 a month to watch you talk about Justin Bieber.
Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.More Alex Seitz-Wald.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)