By Holland Cooke
BLOCK ISLAND, RI — He told us that, first-and-foremost, he was an entertainer. And was he ever. As was the late gritty iconoclast G. Gordon Liddy, second-in back when political talk radio found traction. Either of them probably could’ve read the phone book and held our attention. Local hosts chimed-into what became a conservative chorus. Yet, as they still share the same sheet music, it’s not the same without the lead singer.
Post-Reagan Revolution, Rush did best when Clinton and Obama were in the White House. During Dubya’s turn, Limbaugh’s act was still big in small markets but got measurably smaller in big markets. iHeart moved him from 640 to 1150 in Los Angeles (“KEIB”), and some “Rush Radio” stations re-branded. As Trump drummed-up discord, Rush rebounded, and soldiered-on, often in pain. RIP.
Now — as The Rush Limbaugh Show audience splinters to a half-dozen syndicated would-be keepers-of-the-flame – some 20/20 hindsight: Was his success misread?
Fairness Doctrine out, Consolidation in, Narrative stalls
Coincident deregulatory events:
- Without Equal Time constraints, broadcast Speech was freer. Political programming proliferated.
- Without ownership limits, local programming suffered. ‘Darn convenient that so many longform conservative talkers were available for straight-barter. Few stations can now afford local talent.
Syndicated hosts vying for 12:00 noon -3:00 pm ET on Limbaugh sticks seem to presume listeners’ appetite for anger – notwithstanding polling data demonstrating widespread optimism now – and the day-after-day negativity is relentless. So I was unsurprised when “FOX Across America” host Jimmy Failla emerged as a listener fave after client KTBB conducted “auditions of talk radio’s rising stars” (other major syndicated hosts, each airing for a week). Unlike other conservative contenders, witty Failla is of-good-cheer. Others scold, he smiles.
As pandemic-weary listeners exhale during this American comeback, dare we typecast “talk radio” as politics? Rush played it like a Stradivarius; but previously, he played disco music, and Top 40 before that. And he did “Monday Night Football.” Whatever his source material, he held our attention. And if we learned one thing during the shutdown, it is people’s hunger for survival information.
Paraphrasing Simon & Garfunkel…
“Where have you gone, Clark Howard?” Just several months ago, listening to several client stations, I heard him, cheerfully, serve-up…solutions. What he was telling me was SO useful that I didn’t want to miss a day, a conspicuous contrast to the daily problems-problems-problems rehash on the sorehead shows. Although Clark’s daily radio show is over, he’s still at it, where else? Digital.
Even as podcasting booms while AM/FM TSL erodes, The Rigged Election Show can continue to be a business. Trump worshipers are THAT dug-in. But without Rush Limbaugh’s leadership, broadcasters’ best bet will be localism, something listeners aren’t getting elsewhere. Intimidating as the HR expense may seem, the next local host isn’t a unicorn, if – as I suggested in a recent column – you find a true capitalist, not just somebody who plays one on radio.
Holland Cooke is the author of the E-book “Multiply Your Podcast Subscribers, Without Buying Clicks,” available from Talkers books (click the banner on this page). He is a consultant working at the intersection of broadcasting and the Internet. And HC hosts “The Big Picture” TV show Friday nights at 7ET on RT America. Follow HC on Twitter @HollandCooke