Are we ever gonna get Rush Limbaugh right? It certainly hasn’t been an easy task over the years. Radio historians will note that he bounced around small to major stations awhile–just another kilohertz gypsy (I should know. I was one, too). But he actually quit radio awhile, to be a flack for the Kansas City Royals, because radio couldn’t figure out how to use "Jeff Christie" and others of his nom de mikes. And once radio finally figured him out, first at KFBK, Sacramento; then WABC, New York; then the rest is history — then the audience couldn’t always figure him out.
People forget that the early Rush and such bits as the sound of a vacuum cleaner to simulate an abortion, were considered the elements of true shock radio. Even a few conservatives who knew in their hearts that they should like Limbaugh, weren’t always sure that they could. And yet he demanded their listenership and ultimately their allegiance.
CBS Correspondent Charles Osgood once noted that you can’t NOT listen to Paul Harvey, and that Paul could say more in a pause than the rest of us could say in a paragraph. There was something like that going on with Rush. He reached through that radio speaker and seized you by the lapels. In a way he was a throwback to an earlier era, when radio truly held your attention with dramas and comedies but above all, with no competition. Rush, on the other hand, held your attention with competition everywhere: television, cable television, the internet, and of course, radio itself.
Those 660 or so Rush affiliates are only about 5% of the total. Or, 95% of radio stations don’t carry Rush. But his audiences became legendary. It is literally possible to go to the ratings for a given city and, without knowing which station carries Limbaugh, to scan the numbers for 12noon to 3PM ET weekdays and determine which is his. That would be the station with the bulge in the ratings, in what would normally graph as the dip, between the high points of morning drive and afternoon drive times.
By now it’s a given that Rush saved AM radio and I don’t think that’s hyperbole. Go to those same ratings books and you’ll see, in most cities, a lot of FM stations at the top of the heap (FM gets nearly 80% of the radio audience) and one, at most two, AM stations in the top 10. And in most cities, that top AM station is Rush’s station.
How did this small town boy make it so big? He’s the son of a regionally-prominent Republican family in southeastern Missouri who grew up about 150 miles from me and a few years after me. By his own admission he was no student. He just wanted to be on the radio. You don’t hear a lot of "arrogant S.O.B." stories about Rush, as you will about more than a few big (and little) names in this business. People I know who knew him then (I didn’t) all say he was pleasant, friendly, and eager to succeed. A few years ago I was co-host for the Fiesta Bowl Parade, on my affiliate KTAR, Phoenix, and one of the other hosts was former Kansas City Royal George Brett. During the small talk of commercial breaks, Brett had nothing but kind things to say about Rush from Limbaugh’s baseball p.r. days.
Rush, too, had trouble getting Rush right. Although he was thoroughly grounded in that conservative philosophy, that was for off-the-air. That was for the voting booth. That was for ranting to family and friends, not to an audience. Who wanted to hear somebody rant at you through their radio speaker?
Well, a lot of people as it turned out. Once Rush decided to give radio one more try, in Sacramento. Why he decided to be himself on the air, I don’t know. Maybe it was desperation, what-have-I-got-to-lose. But it wasn’t long before KFBK had unreal ratings in their 9AM-12Noon time period. New York got interested.
I will now tell you a story I’ve never told anyone before. I doubt very many people even know it, but I almost blocked the Limbaugh phenomenon, or at least, deflected it. By the 80’s I was Larry King’s radio backup on Mutual Radio, then Westwood One as it came to be known. I had (and still have) my morning news magazine "America in the Morning". And I got a few offers. KMOX, St. Louis offered me afternoon drive once, but I was under contract to Mutual and declined the offer which came from the legendary general manager Robert Hyland himself. And–I got a call one day from the program director at WABC, New York. Was I interested in working 12Noon-2PM there? Actually, both offers were attractive, but I was happy where I was and under contract in any event. I declined. But it would have been interesting had I taken the WABC job.
Not that I would have been the next Rush Limbaugh (even before there was a first one). I wouldn’t have been. But then, neither might have Rush. However, that would only have been a minor rewrite of radio history, because once he found himself and his voice and his role, Rush WAS going to make it big time. If it hadn’t been at WABC, it would have been somewhere, and would have ultimately led to roughly his current dominant position.
Of course, the hallmark of Rush Limbaugh is controversy, and he got that in spades from day one. I tried googling "hate Rush Limbaugh" and got thousands of hits. A few at random:
"I was treated with the same drug (oxycontin) as Mr. Limbaugh. The drug was also quite constipating. My assumption is that this must have contributed to Mr. Limbaugh’s ‘on air’ personality."
"El Rushbo is a disgrace to the media, journalists, broadcasters, and the HUMAN RACE. Period."
"Some foolish people may have some sympathy for the racist pig drug fiend Limbaugh…"
Let’s see here…"racist moron"…"moralizing, arrogant, bigoted blowhard…"…"******* hypocrite junkie piece of ****…"…etc. etc.
Much of it quickly degenerates into spluttering profanity. Often, it completely backfires, most notably when Harry Reid and 41 of his fellow Democratic senators signed a letter urging Rush’s bosses to reprimand him for a "phony soldier" comment Limbaugh made on-air. That letter was put up for bids on e-Bay and raised 2.1 million dollars. Rush matched the money, which sent 4.2 million dollars to the kids of military personnel and law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.
Rush Limbaugh is certainly not above legitimate criticism. His well-documented personal life isn’t perfect. When he first attained prominence he was notoriously thin-skinned, although I think the calluses and scar tissue have grown over the years. His TV efforts have never generated his radio following. And I don’t think the radio show has always been as much fun in recent years, since he was named an honorary member of the freshman class of Congress by 1994 Republicans.
But that’s serious nitpicking. He’s racked up an unprecedented one fifth of a century in this mercurial world of network talk radio. If that talent isn’t on loan, Rush must at least have a lease arrangement with God.