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.