When Alex Jones started broadcasting on the radio in the late 1990s, he followed the talk-radio playbook to a T. He built a large and devoted audience — in his case, of far-right conspiracy-theory believers — and began to sell radio advertising against them, and videos, books, and T-shirts to them. From there, he expanded: He established Infowars.com, began making and selling his own conspiracy-oriented documentary films, and then launched PrisonPlanet.tv, a subscription-only streaming-video service that offered instant access to his films. By 2013, he had built a media empire: web, radio, subscription video, and DVD and T-shirt sales. At the time, Salon’s Alex Seitz-Wald estimated that Jones was pulling in as much as $10 million a year between subscriptions, web and radio advertising, and sales.
But sometime later that year, his business model changed completely. Since late 2013, Jones has been pushing a collection of dietary supplements designed to prey on the paranoias and insecurities of his listeners: Infowars Life Silver Bullet Colloidal Silver. Infowars Life Brain Force Plus. Infowars Life Super Male Vitality. Infowars Life Liver Shield. In a recent BuzzFeed profile of Jones, Charlie Warzel writes that the launch of Infowars dietary supplements “completely transformed” Infowars into a “media empire,” but this might even be underselling it — if not mischaracterizing the nature of Jones’s business. If you visit Infowars.com today, there is no “advertise with Infowars” link. Unlike other right-wing media empires, it does not appear to be supported by high-net-worth investors like Robert Mercer. Alex Jones is not trying to get you to subscribe to his video service anymore (though it still exists). In fact, he hasn’t even made a documentary film since 2012. And nearly every ad on his website sells just one thing: Infowars Life dietary supplements. An examination of his business seems to indicate that the vast majority of Infowars’ revenue comes from sales of these dietary supplements. Infowars isn’t a media empire — it’s a snake-oil empire. Let me explain.
If Alex Jones were a typical high-profile syndicated radio-talk-show host, he could expect to receive two main sources of revenue. The first is syndication revenue, and the second is advertising revenue. When a syndicator representing a major host like Sean Hannity convinces a station to carry his show, the station agrees to pay a certain amount each time it airs the show. Alex Jones’s show, however, is syndicated by the Genesis Communications Network, a mostly right-wing radio network that takes a different approach. Instead of charging syndication fees to radio stations, the company only uses what is called the barter model. GCN offers the content for no cost, and in exchange, GCN reserves the right to sell national advertising against the programs, generally four minutes per hour. In a weakening ad-sales market for local radio, free content can be very appealing for station owners with tight margins, so GCN shows are picked up on hundreds of stations around the country, which then run their own local ads.
One might think that GCN would share its ad revenue with Infowars and the hosts of other shows. That’s not how it works. One Genesis Communications employee told me that the hosts get another three to four minutes per hour of their own advertising time. Most hosts sell this ad time, either directly or through brokers, and that ad revenue is most of the money the hosts make. “If you call Alex Jones’s ad-sales team,” the employee told me, however, “you’ll probably retire before you hear back from them”. When I asked him why, he explained that Jones uses his three minutes per hour to sell his own dietary supplements. And Alex Jones can choose to tout his own products beyond that, as well, during the rest of his show.
In effect, Alex Jones is running a nationwide, daily, four-hour infomercial for his dietary supplements. His gravel-voiced rants against the globalist conspiracy to take away our guns and destroy America are just a bonus for listeners. He doesn’t get syndication fees from GCN. He doesn’t get a cut of the advertising that GCN sells. And he doesn’t sell his three minutes per hour of national advertising time. The radio show makes no direct money for Alex Jones. It’s all about selling his dietary supplements.
It’s interesting to note that GCN itself seems to depend very heavily on advertising revenue from Alex Jones’s show. An advertising rate sheet that the network shared with me indicates that advertising on Infowars specifically is 32 times more expensive than advertising generally on GCN; a rate that major national brands — like mortgage broker Guaranteed Rate; Harry’s, the shaving-product company; and online business-card printer Vistaprint — seem happy to pay.
Of course, the Jones media empire isn’t limited to the radio. What about his website and YouTube channel? Thanks to an outcry from advertisers and publishers, Google has tightened restrictions on the types of YouTube videos against which it will serve ads, and a recent tour of Jones’s YouTube channel found it to be completely ad-free. But even before the ad-placement changes, it was evident that revenue from YouTube itself may not have been the main goal. Each video ends with a commercial (some up to three minutes long) for Infowars Life dietary supplements.
Then, there is the jewel in the Infowars digital crown: the Infowars website. Most publishers make money by selling display ads — the banners and squares you see on any major digital publisher’s website, including NYMag.com. On Infowars, however, all the display ads are selling — what else? — Infowars Life dietary supplements. At the bottom of each article is a paid “content recommendation” widget served by the Revcontent network. These widgets, which provide a grid of links to often seedy stories “from around the web,” can be lucrative, but they’re rarely the sole source of a publisher’s revenue. If we assume the most generous terms — say, $3 per 1,000 page views, which is at the upper end of deals content-recommendation companies make — and use data from web-analytics service Quantcast, which shows that Infowars.com received 476 million views over all of 2016, Jones could have pulled in nearly $1.5 million. But that’s a high estimate: The widget is not served on the home page, so 476 million overstates the number of views, and the deal with Revcontent is likely much more stringent. Let’s assume a still-generous $1 million for Revcontent.
To sum up: Jones makes no money from selling advertisements on his radio show. He makes no money selling advertisements on his YouTube channel. His subscription service languishes on a separate site that is no longer promoted by Infowars.com display ads (for that matter, it appears to consist mostly of videos you can find for free on YouTube). He makes, most likely, around $1 million from selling ad space on his popular website — not a paltry sum by any means, but not nearly enough to support a media empire on the order of Infowars. (For context, Jones is paying $516,000 a year, half of that figure, in alimony, according to recent court filings.) So where does Alex Jones’s money come from?
It comes from dietary supplements.
If the number of reviews for each product on his Infowars Store website can be taken as an indication of the relative popularity of each product, the dietary supplements are extremely lucrative for Infowars. One BuzzFeed source says that the Infowars Store brought in $10 million in revenue over two years in 2012 and 2013, before the supplements were introduced. (Jones apparently bragged that the store grossed $18 million over that period.) How much is he making from the supplements now? Fully 81 percent of the more-than-30,000 product reviews on Alex Jones’s InfowarsStore.com are for Infowars Life–brand dietary supplements. Assuming the product reviews are generally real (and I believe they are), it’s possible to roughly estimate just how lucrative this line of products has been for Alex Jones. The more-than-25,000 dietary-supplement reviews on InfowarsStore.com only go back as far as February 2015, so we are looking at approximately two years of reviews. A representative from PowerReviews, which manages Infowars’ review system, told me that between 3 percent and 8 percent of purchasers generally review their products. Assuming that 5 percent of Jones’s customers review each product they’ve purchased, the total sales would be more than 500,000 units sold over two years. At an average price of $30, this would represent $15,000,000 in sales over the same two-year period. If we assume more generously that reviews represent closer to 3 percent of the total number of purchasers, the number balloons to nearly $25,000,000. That’s a lot of money — especially when you consider that a devoted audience like Jones’s is likely filled with repeat customers who may not review each individual purchase.
It is a brilliant business model. If you can be convinced that an international cabal of globalists is hell-bent on creating a New World Order, perhaps you could be persuaded to buy Infowars Life Survival Shield X-2, a one-fluid-ounce bottle of iodine supplement for $39.95. If you can be convinced that President Barack Obama was a member of Al Qaeda, perhaps you will buy two ounces of Infowars Life Super Male Vitality drops for $59.95. Alex Jones does sell some other products on his website, but the vast majority of the web ads and on-air product pitches are for his dietary supplements. The products themselves are largely produced by Dr. Edward F. Group III, a Houston chiropractor and founder of dietary-supplement-maker Global Healing Center. Group is an atypical doctor in that while he lists a bevy of educational accomplishments on his website and LinkedIn profile, degree-verification services indicate that he seems not to have completed college. When asked about Group’s undergraduate education, a representative of Global Healing Center declined to comment.
It is worth pointing out that there is at least one more source of revenue for Infowars: Its infrequent, public-radio-like funding drives, which BuzzFeed reports “could easily raise $100,000 in a day.” (If my figures are right, he’d need to put on a drive every other day to match what he’s making selling supplements.) In fact, at this moment, Infowars is in the middle of a 30-hour broadcast fundraiser to “defend free speech” as “corporate press, social media giants and the establishment attempt to stifle our message of freedom and liberty.” The main way his listeners can help? “One of the biggest sales in the history of InfowarsStore.com.”