A quarter century is a long time for anybody in the media industry to keep an easily distracted audience tuned in, and Limbaugh has done it, amassing a fortune along the way. He has navigated around a number of bumps in the road during his career.
Limbaugh once had to take a hiatus from his show for five weeks to get treatment for dependence on pain pills. That episode included a criminal investigation for alleged “doctor shopping,” but the charges were dropped. He tried a syndicated TV show, but the ratings were poor. He also had a short stint as an analyst on ESPN’s NFL pregame show, but he soon resigned after making controversial comments about Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
His biggest challenge was to deal with hearing loss. He was rendered almost deaf in 2001, but a cochlear implant kept him broadcasting. His hearing continues to deteriorate, as Limbaugh himself acknowledged in a recent interview.
The question now becomes how long Limbaugh can maintain his talk supremacy. The past year hasn’t been kind to Limbaugh. His insulting comments about a Georgetown University law student generated controversy, an advertiser boycott and, remarkably, an apology from Limbaugh.
The radio giant Cumulus Broadcasting recently threatened to pull Limbaugh from more than 40 Cumulus-owned stations when their agreement ends this year.
Advertising boycotts and doubts from media corporations eventually take a toll, and Limbaugh may soon look like the aging NFL quarterback who can no longer escape the blitz. His show has become more predictable. Listener phone calls get little air time. Conservative talkers with a less strident tone have emerged to capture followings.
Limbaugh indicated in a recent interview he had no exit plan from his show, saying, “I cannot imagine not doing this, not having this to come to every day.” His fans are glad to hear that, but another episode of advertiser outrage would quickly change the business model for affiliates who now have plenty of other talkers from which to choose. That wasn’t the case for most of Limbaugh’s first 25 years.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, and author of “Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.