In 1989, Sean Hannity got his first job in radio, hosting a show for no pay at a volunteer college station at UC Santa Barbara. Hannity didn’t last long on the liberal campus and was fired for making homophobic comments, which Hannity has since admitted were “ignorant and embarrassing.” Nearly three decades later, the 56-year-old is at the height of a high-profile career.
Hannity drew 3.368 million total viewers last quarter, making him the most-watched host in cable news. His Fox News program Hannity was the only show on MSNBC, CNN or Fox News to even break 3 million viewers. As for his first love, radio, Hannity is the second-most-listened-to talk radio host in the U.S. with 14 million weekly listeners. (Hannity is only beaten by fellow Premiere Networks radio host Rush Limbaugh.)
This year Hannity is the only cable news host on our annual list of the world’s 100 highest paid celebrities. In the last 12 months, he earned $36 million before taxes and management fees, thanks to his eight-figure paychecks from his programs on Fox News and Premiere Networks. His contracts for Fox and Premiere are estimated at $15 million and $20 million respectively, and Hannity adds to his bottom line with speaker fees.
“Like most media people on TV, I am overpaid,” Hannity told Us Weekly in 2017. “I know this because of my blue-collar roots, for which I am grateful.”
The conservative host’s rise is inextricably tied to his close friendship and access to President Donald Trump. Hannity has landed several exclusives with Trump and was the first to interview the president after his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump is a vocal supporter of Hannity and even uses Twitter to tell his base to watch Hannity. New York Magazine reported in May that Trump and Hannity talk most weeknights after Hannity airs. “That Hannity’s stock has risen is completely linked to his relationship with Trump,” says Adam Klein, an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School. “He has chosen the path of trumpeting Trump, as a commentator. As a result, to continue to ride his new higher standing, he is beholden to Trump.”
The past year has not been without controversy for Hannity, but like President Trump, he seems able to weather any scandal. Viewers called for a boycott of Hannity in November after a radio interview with then-senatorial candidate Roy Moore in which Hannity appeared to describe Moore’s sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl as “consensual.” (Hannity later stated that he “misspoke” and was referring to the 17- and 18-year-old teenagers that Moore pursued.) At first, several advertisers, including Keurig, threatened to pull spots from Hannity, but Hannity’s fans fought back in full force and won. Angry viewers even smashed Keurig coffee makers and posted videos on social media. Within a few days, Keurig’s CEO apologized for how the matter was handled. Other advertisers deleted tweets saying they would not run ads on Hannity, including Realtor.com, which later stated that it would continue to place ads on Fox News.
As long as Hannity rides the Trump train, the president’s followers will tune in no matter how loud Hannity’s detractors are. “The Trump fans are hardcore—nothing has made them blink—and the more traditional and progressive and left-leaning media wrings their hands, the more entrenched the hardcore Trumpers are… and the more they appreciate Hannity’s willingness to go to the barricades for their man,” Wilch says.
The loyalty of Hannity’s viewers is only rivaled by that of the networks that benefit from him. Even after it was revealed that Hannity was Trump attorney Michael Cohen’s mysterious third client—a fact that Hannity failed to disclose despite discussing Cohen extensively on his program—Fox News stood by the host. (Hannity wrote on Twitter that Cohen never represented him and their conversations were brief and centered on real estate.) Fox News said in a statement that it was “surprised” by Hannity’s relationship with Cohen but supported Hannity after it reviewed the situation. “Hannity can weather boycotts because both of his companies stand behind him,” says Michael Harrison, founder of radio trade publication Talkers Magazine. “Most politically-motivated boycotts could be overcome if the media corporations that engage in opinion broadcasting weren’t so quick to fold under pressure.”
With $36 million in yearly earnings, Hannity isn’t the highest-paid radio host on the Forbes Celebrity 100—Howard Stern and Limbaugh’s earnings both top Hannity’s by more than $50 million—but Hannity’s proximity to the president gives him a competitive edge. Earlier this year, trade magazine Talkers Magazine put Hannity on the top of its Heavy Hundred list of influential radio talkers, dethroning Limbaugh. This only the second time in the past 24 years that Talkers has not ranked Limbaugh first. “Sean Hannity’s prominence as a newsmaking frontline player in presidential politics, coupled with being a double threat as a radio and TV star, rank him this past year as one of, if not the, most influential radio and TV talk show hosts of all time,” Harrison says.
This year, Hannity ranks 92nd on the Forbes Celebrity 100, but he is well-positioned to move up the ranks: boosted by his rapport with Trump, he renegotiated his contracts with Fox News and Premiere Networks, a change that will be reflected in his earnings on next year’s list. And whether Trump fails or flourishes, Hannity wins. “If Trump continues to succeed, Hannity’s stature will be given a sheen because of that connection; if Trump stumbles, those on the right will need a defender,” Wilch says.
“Either way, barring a major surprise or shift, Hannity’s unique strengths will have relevance.”
That said, there is a limit to Hannity’s leverage. His sky-high viewership and last year’s departure of Bill O’Reilly from Fox News make Hannity vital to the network, but his ad revenue trails Tucker Carlson’s. Hannity is Fox News’ top show in terms of keeping eyeballs on TV ads, as his show is 15% more likely to keep viewers tuned in compared to the network’s other shows, according to iSpot.tv. But the TV ad measurement company also found that from January through June 2018, Hannity drove an estimated $80 million in revenue, which is a healthy 14.4% of Fox News’ overall revenue but lower than Tucker Carlson Tonight’s $97 million.
Furthermore, even though previous Fox News stars Greta Van Susteren and Megyn Kelly both departed to NBC in the last two years, it is unlikely that another major network would poach Hannity, given his staunchly conservative image. “If you want to become more valuable to your company, you have to get an offer from another company,” says Les Rose, professor of practice in broadcast and digital journalism at Syracuse’s Newhouse School. “He would not be welcome at the big three networks unless they had a total cave-in. He’s gone as far as he can barring any dire changes in the media landscape.”
The Trump era has been good to Hannity, but his standing hangs on a relationship with the temperamental and unpredictable president. If Hannity even appeared to express less than 100% support for Trump, his career would be jeopardized. “Trump’s demand for absolute one-way loyalty is only matched by his need for ‘new’ energy and look. Should audiences tire, even a little, for Hannity’s slavish devotion to Trump or be compromised in any way, all bets are off and Trump will find a new voice,” Klein warns. “Hannity might want to reread the story of Icarus.”