An obscure radio an-
nouncer without a college degree was plucked from a Sacramento radio station in August 1988 and given a syndicated talk show on a 56-station network. Twenty-five years later, Rush Limbaugh is on 600 stations, reaching 15 million to 20 million listeners each week. Over the years, he has been lionized by loyal listeners who identify him as a surrogate spokesman for conservative views. He has been demonized by ideological foes on the left, keeping the liberal website Media Matters in a tizzy.
Limbaugh is the kind of personality about whom everybody has an opinion, usually an overstated one. B. Eric Rhoads, publisher of Radio Ink magazine, gushingly wrote last spring, “Rush Limbaugh saved the AM dial from extinction.” Certainly, Limbaugh’s success did generate listenership for many AM stations that developed the talk format when music formats left for FM, but other factors also helped save AM.
Political talk radio boomed in the late 1980s just after the Federal Communications Commission removed its Fairness Doctrine, which mandated balanced coverage of controversial issues. Limbaugh was among the first to exploit that new freedom to opine, but labeling him the savior of AM is too much. Sports talk also helped save AM, as did religious broadcasters and even Spanish-language stations. Besides, AM radio is not really saved. Only about 17 percent of all radio listening now is done with stations on the AM band.
President Obama also likes to talk about Limbaugh in exaggerated terms. He told GOP leaders in 2009, “You can’t listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.” Then this year, the president said Republican politicians fear Limbaugh, contributing to “gridlock that makes people cynical about government.” While it might be a clever rhetorical gimmick to hang Limbaugh around the GOP’s neck, it is ridiculous to assert that Limbaugh has the clout to create a great political impasse.
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.