Rush Limbaugh has been the dominant force in conservative media for the past two decades. His show the Rush Limbaugh Show is aired on over 600 radio stations across the country. His show reaches and estimated 15-20 millions listeners not including those that listen to the show through web streaming or view his website. His influence is such that very few Republican politicians dare to take him on or criticize him.
He is no stranger to controversy and seems to revel in it seldom apologizing for what he says and he has easily survived all previous controversies. Many liberals have called for him to be removed from the air joining their voices with those of his supporters creating the perfect cacophony of free publicity that drew in even more listeners and with them more advertisers. For years his format and attitude worked well and launched a format that would see men like Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and Glenn Beck to join him in catering to a segment of the population that is angry about the way that they feel the nation is moving.
However things have been changing over the last few years. Demographic surveys of Rush’s listeners show that he is declining in popularity in every demographic except for listeners over 65 years old. That said Rush and his fellow conservative talkers are still very popular but that could be changing especially in light of Limbaugh’s ill advised three day trashing of Sandra Fluke. In the wake of that advertisers have been pulling out in droves, as of last night something close to 150 advertisers including major corporations have pulled advertising from Limbaugh’s show. Additionally Premier Radio which markets the show has pulled national advertising in what are called “barter” ads from the show for two weeks. Those ads are required if a station wants to air the show for free, thus making the show more affordable for local stations to air. This does not bode well for Limbaugh as for the first time he is having “dead air” when no advertising is running in breaks and ironically much of the advertising now running is government sponsored public service announcements. Companies telling Premier that they do not want to advertise on Rush or other programs “deemed to be offensive or controversial” include Auto Manufacturers GM, Ford and Toyota, Insurance companies such as Geico, Allstate, Prudential and State Farm; Banks like Capitol One and Restaurants such as McDonald’s and Subway. Those are all heavy hitters and the impact of losing such advertising cannot be discounted. Limbaugh’s claim that the numbers as compared to all of his other advertisers is “like losing a couple of french fries out of the french fry cup at the drive through” is so much bluster. Advertisers, Premier Media and local stations are concerned about the financial impact on them.
Bain Capitol, Mitt Romney’s old company may even have a deciding role having bought Clear Channel Radio, which is a subsidiary of Premier a few years back. They have trimmed costs and cut personnel at the media giant and may not be happy over the amount of money that they could lose as advertisers flee and stations drop Limbaugh’s show.
There are some liberal politicians calling for Limbaugh’s show to be shut down and lawyer Gloria Alred has even urged Florida to charge Limbaugh with a crime under an old law which makes it illegal to question a woman’s honor by calling them prostitutes or sluts and other such slurs. Others are calling for his show to be pulled from Armed Forces Radio for the latest incident. If the Left is smart it will let Limbaugh stew in the boiling pot of the angry free market and refrain from doing things to make him appear to be some sort of free speech martyr, which he is not. It is fine to criticize him and even satirize him but smart thinkers don’t create martyrs out of people who are not. Speaking of satire Saturday Night Live did a great opening last week with a Limbaugh parody reacting to his loss of advertisers.
Personally I don’t think that Limbaugh or any other talker should be shut down or censored except as the free market dictates. Advertisers and listeners need to be the ones making those decisions. As for Armed Forces Radio it broadcasts shows from across the political spectrum so as long as there is balance he shouldn’t be pulled unless another similar show is aired in his place.
In the long run the market will decide if Limbaugh or others like him remain on the air or if people will change their listening habits. Perhaps this will result in local stations going back to finding local talent to host shows. One reason that so many nationally syndicated shows including Limbaugh’s are one so many stations is because they were cheaper to run and brought in advertising dollars. However if the advertising dollars dry up and the costs to run syndicated shows outweighs local programing I would imagine a renaissance in local programing of various types to include political talk radio. One of the more interesting local talkers that I have heard is Tony Macrini who broadcasts the morning show on WNIS 790 AM in Norfolk, I don’t always agree with him but he is entertaining, and deals with both local and national issues.
It could well be that this type of programming is running its course. Limbaugh has been on the air 23 years and others like him a decade or more. I cannot speak for others as everyone has their own reasons for listening to or not listening to a given radio or television program. But I can say that I listened to Rush and others like him for years going back to when I first heard Rush in the DFW area in 1990. However after I came back from Iraq in 2008 I found that I could no longer listen. Part was because what Rush and others were saying about the war bore no resemblance to what I saw and experienced. Part was when Rush had the nerve to call a soldier that was an Iraq veteran that disagreed with his view of the war a “phony soldier” in 2007 showed me that despite all of his “support” for the troops it was only for those that agreed with him and part was that the shrillness of his rhetoric in the 2008 Presidential election was a deciding factor. It was as if he and others were inciting Americans to hate each other and having seen what such political, racial and religious hatred did to societies in Iraq and the Balkans I realized that I could no longer listen.
I figure that Limbaugh will survive this but think that his influence will really begin to wane. I expected before this that as his listener demographics changed that he would lose influence but this incident may speed that decline in a way that nobody expected.