By Mike Kinosian
His diagnosis was announced to listeners of his radio show exactly one year ago (February 2020).
News of his passing was delivered by his wife, Kathryn, on Wednesday’s Premiere Networks radio broadcast.
To proclaim that Limbaugh was the most polarizing personality in talk radio history is completely logical and highly reasonable, although his naysayers would say “logical” and “reasonable” generally did not apply to the conservative icon’s on-air talking points.
Even so, take into account such factors as impact; longevity; audience reach; overall bombast; and it is clear why his vaunted position as the “premiere” entry on both TALKERS’ “Heavy Hundred,” as well as the far-reaching “Heaviest Hundred,” was rock solid.
After dominating as the “Heavy Hundred” pacesetter, Limbaugh finally relinquished the crown in 2018 to Sean Hannity, who repeated at #1 in 2019 and 2020; Limbaugh was runner-up all three years.
Exceptionally profound was the way Limbaugh brought a music radio personality’s timing to the talk show. It is of historical proportions that the Top 40 talent formerly known as Jeff Christie gained such considerable celebrity status through being a radio talk host.
Regarding Limbaugh’s impact, one can read limitless ways he influenced careers of countless fellow talk show hosts.
Bringing in big bucks
In this context though, “impact” is intended to convey drastically greater meaning.
Greater than any other single talent, Limbaugh was widely credited for not only reinvigorating the politically geared talk show as we know it, but also for prolonging AM radio’s very existence. The aggregate amount of revenue he generated for operators of AM facilities carrying his daily talk show is nothing short of mindboggling.
“Ditto” that for his syndicator Premiere Networks and especially for himself.
Some 13 years ago, Limbaugh signed an eight-year contract for $400 million, making him terrestrial radio’s highest-paid broadcaster. When the contract ended in August 2016, he inked a four-year extension.
By 2018, Limbaugh had become the world’s second-highest-paid radio host, earning an annual salary of $84.5 million; Howard Stern is #1.
While a large portion of Limbaugh’s money was derived from radio, he wrote seven books, including a five-title children’s series, “Rush Revere.” Forbes pegged his annual earning power at $87 million, placing him at #18 on the “World’s Highest-Paid Celebrities” list.
Meanwhile, according to FOX Business, Limbaugh’s total net worth varied, with most estimating it at approximately $600 million.
In terms of longevity, Limbaugh logged over 33 years in syndication.
Results of a recent Zogby International poll cited him as this country’s most trusted radio personality with 12.5% of poll responses.
Nonetheless, February has proven to be highly momentous – if not an emotional rollercoaster ride – for Limbaugh who, in the year’s shortest month: Received his Stage 4 advanced cancer diagnosis (2020); was awarded the Medal of Freedom one day later, during president Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address; drew considerable ire by comparing COVID-19 to the common cold (nearly one-half million Americans have died of the coronavirus); and passed away (February 2021).
During his speech, Trump said of Limbaugh, “Here tonight is a special man, someone beloved by millions of Americans. This is not good news, but what is good news is that he is the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet.” Trump thanked Limbaugh for his “decades of tireless devotion to our country.”
In focusing on nationwide protests surrounding the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police, Limbaugh was once again in the middle of a firestorm the first of June (2020) by denying the existence of white privilege.
Joining Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy on “The Breakfast Club” (syndicated by Premiere Networks through iHeartMedia urban contemporary flagship WWPR “Power 105,” and simulcast on Revolt) Limbaugh contended, “[White privilege] is a liberal political construct along the lines of political correctness. It’s designed to intimidate and get people to shut up and admit they are guilty for doing things they haven’t done. I don’t have any white privilege. I’m not denying that there are certain individuals out there that think they are better than other people, but structurally, institutionally, white supremacy – that’s a construct.” Limbaugh claimed he was offended his whole life by other groups and individuals, adding he was fired nine times throughout his career.
Mystified at his mistreatment
Panelists on a 1992 National Association of Broadcasters talk radio panel in San Francisco included Limbaugh, Ronn Owens (KGO, San Francisco’s then 9:00 am – 12:00 noon personality), and TALKERS publisher Michael Harrison. Financial radio advisors (the late) Ken Dolan and his wife, Daria Dolan, were the moderators.
At that time, Limbaugh had just entered the Bay Area where he was on-air opposite Owens. Despite picking up clearance after clearance, a significant concern circling Limbaugh was whether a syndicated talk talent would do well during a prime daypart in major markets. Generally on the market’s secondary talk station in those days, Limbaugh started to come into his own, but was nowhere comparable to the history-setting accomplishments he would later achieve.
Many audience members were hostile to Limbaugh during that particular confab appearance. Some disagreed with his politics, while others were specifically angry that, as a syndicated entertainer, he was taking jobs from local talk radio talents.
Shortly after the panel session concluded, Limbaugh grabbed Harrison aside and in a very serious tone implored, “Maybe you could answer a question for me – it’s something I really want to know: Why don’t people in this business like me?,” he pointedly queried.
Uncharacteristically, his guard was completely down so Limbaugh was totally like any one of a million other people in the business who would seek counsel. It genuinely bothered him that those in the radio business would take shots at him; he was dumbfounded at the way he was treated. In fact, Harrison recounts that Limbaugh was “hurt so badly that he couldn’t take it.”
Fun-driven perception of radio
Clearly though, Limbaugh loved the “art” of radio.
Via voice-created pictures, he became an exceptional performer. Even though Limbaugh was thin-skinned and very sensitive, he consistently put himself in the line-of-fire more so than anyone Harrison had ever seen. “In many respects, Harrison emphasizes, “he was like the vaudevillian who loved being on stage. For Limbaugh, doing a radio talk show was entertainment and hosts shouldn’t take themselves seriously as political leaders. He had great disdain for the Jerry Williams-kind of populist talk radio where the on-air personalities actually tried to create and incite social movements.”
Show hosts staged the “Teabag Rebellion” but, in Limbaugh’s assessment, that was just awful because he didn’t think radio was about that. Instead, he viewed radio as being fun and entertainment-driven. “He was sincere about what he did, “Harrison reflects, “but didn’t take himself that seriously.”
Outstanding talk personalities are the ones who consistently bring opinions that resonate and offer fresh angles to their constituency. “I often think that after Limbaugh introduced ideas on a Monday, other talk show hosts ran with it on Tuesday and it filtered down to some others on Wednesday,” Harrison observes. “Limbaugh was the one writing the songs that the choir sang.”
How to win at bingo
Continuing on that theme/verbiage, novelty songs were a popular element to Limbaugh’s shtick. “The Philanderer,” done to Dion‘s 1961 hit “The Wanderer,” was one such offering; however, the words were changed to, “I’m Ted Kennedy. I’m the philanderer – I fool around, around, around.”
Recalling the way that particular song was handled, Tom Tradup, the then-general manager of WLS-AM, Limbaugh’s Chicago affiliate, notes that, “Rush would open the show with it; play it three minutes later; and if a listener called to say they missed hearing it, he would play it a third time in 15 minutes. It was just killing the show. It was like being in a small market where an on-air talent keeps ringing an annoying hotel bell.”
It so infuriated Tradup that he called Limbaugh’s trusted confidant, Ed McLaughlin, but the former ABC Radio president was completely unsympathetic. “Ed said he had no intention of telling Rush about that; it’s Rush show – he’s a genius and we aren’t going to tell him anything,” Tradup underscores of McLaughlin’s response. “I called [former ABC Radio and Premiere Networks vice president] Stu Krane, who gave me the same answer and added he would pull the show from us if I wanted. That wasn’t what I was saying and wondered what was the matter with them. I wanted to make the show better.”
As a last – yet ultimately direct – resort, Tradup went straight to the source by calling Limbaugh at his New York apartment. “I explained the situation and he said, ‘Bingo – it’s fixed.’”
That was years ago, but as do all great hosts, Limbaugh wanted and needed direction.
Parenthetically, the players may have changed; however, the attitude with Limbaugh’s show was consistent.
Now Salem Radio Network’s VP/News & Talk Programming, Tradup explains few people nationally had ever heard of Limbaugh when WLS-AM launched its talk radio format in 1989. “His syndicated show was less than one year old and was heard in mostly smaller radio markets. Even his ‘home’ at WABC, New York didn’t clear his national show, just two ‘local’ hours.”
Having worked with Limbaugh in Kansas City in the early-1980’s, Tradup knew how talented Limbaugh was. “We added him on WLS-AM, figuring we’d get big ratings because Chicago Democrats would tune-in in big numbers just because they’d be angered by his conservative views. Instead, he just sat there for almost two years like the movie ‘Flatliners.’ Once he kicked in, Rush rocketed WLS-AM to #1 in his daypart among talk stations and never looked back. His death is a deep, personal loss and a blow to the talk radio industry, which literally would not exist today if Rush Hudson Limbaugh hadn’t turned the moribund AM band around and electrified American conservatives from coast-to-coast.”
Illustrating the absurd with absurdity
Quite predictably, fellow conservative talk show cohorts reserve verbal reverence of the highest order for Limbaugh, although the often golf shirt-clad radio entertainer encountered momentous bumps in the road. Increasingly more reclusive in his later years, Limbaugh was able to get past some humiliating disclosures.
There was his 2003 admission about being addicted to prescription painkillers; the fact that he has been married four times; the infamous 2006 situation when custom officials found Viagra in his suitcase, but the prescription was not in his name; and dustup when he challenged the Parkinson’s disease-related shaking Michael J. Fox was doing in an ad advocating stem cell research was all an act.
“He is an insincere pig – a pill-popping, pinhead.” That particular, anything-but-rousing bit of adulation for him was courtesy of the late Don Imus back in March 2012. For perspective, it was Imus’ reaction to Limbaugh’s on-air categorization of Georgetown University law school student Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute” for advocating before Congress that insurance companies cover the cost of birth control.
Wording of Limbaugh’s subsequent “apology” for his assessment of Fluke was actually quite telling, in that, he mentioned that, for more than 20 years on the air, he has “illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. In the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
It cannot be overly exaggerated what sort of conflagration resulted from Limbaugh’s original comment and subsequent media attention. On multiple levels though, Imus’ remarks were among the most powerful and scathing.
During his March 5, 2012 morning drive broadcast, Imus – no stranger to on-air missteps himself – stated, “Here’s the problem with all this: It was a vile, personal, attack of this woman and it was sustained. He said he didn’t mean to personally attack her when he did. Were it me, I would make him apologize to her face-to-face. He owns a Gulfstream IV. Get on it and say, ‘Look, I’m sorry I said this stuff and I’ll never do it again.’ Go to Washington and take her to lunch.”
From an industry standpoint, Stephen Colbert (prior to his current CBS-TV “Late Show” tenure) crystallized matters on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” by stating, “There is an old saying in radio: ‘We have three hours to fill – keep talking’ [and Limbaugh] did. I don’t think Rush should have apologized for calling [Sandra Fluke] a prostitute. It takes one to know one. Remember – he only apologized to keep his advertisers, proving Rush will do anything with his mouth for cash.”
Preceding Colbert that night, Jon Stewart, explained that he does not get “too worked up about the things Rush Limbaugh says. His baseline for rhetoric is calling women ‘feminazis.’ [Was what he said about Sandra Fluke] particularly vile Rush Limbaugh? Of course, he is a terrible person.”
Skeptical of the stats
Another non-fan is Bill Maher, who found Limbaugh “obnoxious,” but pointed out he was able to coexist with the talk radio talent for 20 years by using one simple method: “I do not listen to his program. The only time I hear him is when I’m at a stoplight next to a pickup truck.”
Former Air America Radio personality/current MSNBC host Rachel Maddow states, “People like Mr. Limbaugh are literally banking on you to be offended by what they say. Mr. Limbaugh is trying to be offensive. He is trying to outrage you and he is trying to get you to talk about him, even if you don’t listen to his radio show. He wants to be very, very famous – even if it is for being a bad guy. When you ‘shock’ people for a living, when that is your business plan, you are playing with fire a little bit.”
Many within the radio industry equate Limbaugh’s name to exemplary ratings, but color political commentator Cenk Uygur more than skeptical – if not downright suspicious. Taking it a step further in 2012, Uygur proposed a wager. “Come and take my money, Rush, $10,000 if you can show me your 20 million listeners a day. Show me how big and strong you are. You don’t have those listeners. Those radio ratings have always been made up. I’m challenging you – come and prove me wrong. You won’t because … your ratings aren’t that great.”
To absolutely no one’s surprise, Limbaugh never took Fluke to lunch or responded to Uygur’s ratings bet.
Able to hear the validation?
More than 19 years ago (October 2001), Limbaugh revealed he was getting increasingly deaf. America’s preeminent talk host was finding it harder and harder to hear callers and sound in general, but he did not lose his ability to communicate.
This personal condition even drew the concern of then-president George W. Bush. It is nothing less than astonishing that Limbaugh – TALKERS’ 2009 Freedom of Speech Award recipient – had the ability to overcome hearing loss to the point of doing a daily program on the audio medium of radio.
Rarely did Limbaugh venture from the base of doing a daily three-hour radio show, although his 2003 fling in the Monday Night Football booth was cut short after remarks he made about quarterback Donovan McNabb were perceived as being racist. “I don’t think he’s been that good from the get-go,” Limbaugh proclaimed on a MNF telecast. “What we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve – the defense carried this team.”
Prior to that MNF experiment, future FOX News CEO Roger Ailes produced a Limbaugh TV series, which aired in syndication from 1992 to 1996.
The inevitable question in the industry and Washington for a long time was: Who listened to Rush Limbaugh? In a remark made several years ago on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Democratic strategist James Carville declared, “The Republican Party no longer listens to Rush Limbaugh – the Republican Party is Rush Limbaugh.”
Conservative writer George Will acknowledged some of that party’s leaders “want to bomb Iran, but they’re afraid of Rush Limbaugh.”
A brief snippet from HBO’s 2012 political drama “Game Change” further fanned the flames of Limbaugh’s intense influence in the GOP. From Danny Strong’s screenplay, 2008 presidential nominee John McCain (Ed Harris) warns his running mate Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) after their defeat, “You’re one of the leaders of the party now, Sarah. Don’t get co-opted by Limbaugh and the other extremists. They will destroy the party if you let them.”
Slightly more than two months ago (12/9), Limbaugh pondered if the country was trending toward secession. “I’m not advocating it, have not advocated it, never have advocated it, and probably wouldn’t.” One week later (12/16), a caller (eerily) urged a march on Washington on January 6, with Limbaugh responding, “I have mixed emotions about it.”
Following the Capitol Hill insurrection on that very January 6 date, Limbaugh deactivated his Twitter account, becoming one of a handful of high-profile Trump supporters no longer having accounts on the platform.
While riding the wave he helped create, Limbaugh maintained his radio sensibility and we can only speculate if he believed his own hype.
A bona fide radio giant, Limbaugh was smart; understood the way radio operates; and knew he must be compelling, entertaining, and interesting. “Most people who have the audacity to sit behind a microphone several hours a day to do a talk radio show are very needy,” Harrison insists. “Somewhere deep inside, they are in need of validation. Limbaugh’s self-deprecation changed over the years because he became angrier and angrier at the world for basically giving him a tough time.”
Mike Kinosian is managing editor of TALKERS magazine. He can be emailed at email@example.com