When was the first time you heard Rush Limbaugh? What have you learned and enjoyed about the show? And do you still listen as much as you once did? What changed, is it us, or did the show change? Or is the world so different now that we have other things that catch our attentions?
Rush Limbaugh is the single most influential and important figure in radio in the last 50 years, a colossus that lesser radio hosts dream of equaling. Whatever your opinion of his politics and personality, the man is undeniably the one who single-handedly saved AM radio from obscurity and insignificance. When the Rush Limbaugh show first appeared on the air on dozens of stations on August 1988, AM radio had a few minor talk shows and primarily Hispanic programming. A few alternative rock stations were trying the new AM stereo format, but really nobody was listening.
Rush Limbaugh built a steady listener base, and radio stations eager for content and listeners picked up the show for a 3 hour block in the morning and afternoon. As time went on, the show went from a nice addition to the format to a blockbuster hit that sold advertising and pulled in listeners. For the first time in decades, AM radio was getting great ratings, people were dialing in every day to hear out of curiosity, excitement, and interest as well as calling in to talk to Rush on the air.
In the 1970’s, Richard Nixon mentioned what he called the “silent majority” in America, the large number of people who didn’t like many of the changes and lifestyles that were happening at the time. This silent majority was thought to be the bulk of America who were not in the news, were not making noise, and were quietly going about their work, disappointed with what they saw. Rush Limbaugh’s audience seems to bear out at least part of that theory, as people all across the country tuned in to hear someone that said what they had been for years, talked about things that upset them too, and had a view of politics, culture, and the world that they shared.
As a result, Rush Limbaugh became a phenomenon, a genuine hit that was sustained and continued to grow despite the election of President Clinton and other events in the world and locally. Within two years, the Rush Limbaugh show had more than two million listeners, according to the New York Times. Rush Limbaugh’s influence is significantly credited with the change in power in 1994 from Democratic to Republican power in congress. Many of the new legislators credited Limbaugh with their success, and many of them were big fans. Through the 90’s, Limbaugh’s blend of mockery, satire, analysis, serious monologue and entertainment pulled in more and more listeners, until Rush Limbaugh became the most-listened to, biggest radio program in the history of the world.
The Rush Limbaugh show became must-listen radio for tens of millions of people across America in their cars, long-haul big rigs, over short wave radio to soldiers overseas, in the home and office, and on walkman radios. Rush Limbaugh even wrote two surprise best-selling books (The Way Things Ought To Be and See, I Told You So) and had a short-lived television show. He coined such terms as "Feminazi" and proposed his famous "35 undeniable truths of life" that have caused no small amount of outrage.
Things have changed over the years, now there’s a Republican president in office again and we’re at war. The congress is under a Republican majority and in the last 6 election years, more and more Republicans have been elected to state office as well as federal. All of this to one degree or another is due to the “Maha Rushie” as the man calls himself.
One would expect such a radio show to have an undying listener base, a sure hit for years to come. Such a program should be something conservatives never miss, right? But I haven’t listened regularly to the show for years. I’ve read and heard it again and again, “I used to listen to Rush all the time but I haven’t heard him for a while” or “I never listen any more.” Sure, Rush still enjoys massive numbers, he’s still by far the most listened to show on radio. It’s just that he’s not the hit he used to be, and his core fans just don’t seem as interested as they once were.
So what happened?
There were always four reasons to tune into the Rush Limbaugh Show from the very start:
- News you couldn’t get anywhere else
- Rush Limbaugh’s analysis of that news
- Contacts and Inside information
The real secret behind Rush Limbaugh’s success where other political talk radio shows never had such national success has always been the man himself.His attitude, way of speaking, personal charisma, and skill with the radio format all made for a show that was like no other and was easy to listen to – if his politics didn’t drive you insane. Even people who hated and disagreed with what he had to say were hooked. Rush Limbaugh uses several tricks to gain attention and make what would otherwise be dull or pedantic subjects interesting. One is the subject update. Each type has it’s own introductory music, usually some whimsical or goofy song, introduced by Rush Limbaugh’s faux trumpet fanfare. The update always is some silly or outrageous news story such as San Francisco giving away shopping carts to the homeless so they have something to push around with their goods.
Another is the technique of “illustrating absurdity by absurdity.” Anyone who has taken much logic in school is at least somewhat familiar with the technique of reductio ad absurdem in which the argument one’s opponent uses is taken to it’s logical conclusion and exaggerated, showing how wrong it is. For example, Rush Limbaugh once announced his endorsement and plan to vote for Ross Perot. For an hour, callers incensed at his decision called up and argued all the reasons this was a poor choice, while Rush parroted Perot voter talking points, letting the callers make the case he'd been trying to for weeks: that a vote for Perot was a vote for President Clinton. Which, as it turned out, was completely accurate.
For a time in the early years of the show, Rush would slip a condom over his microphone (the golden EIB microphone – which really is gold, apparently) to represent how his comments were then safer, and he’d do “caller abortions” occasionally which was simply the caller being cut off to the sound of a vacuum cleaner. This kind of thing, combined with Limbaugh’s upbeat attitude and tendency to poke fun at the laughable, as well as his irreverent and stubborn refusal to bend to the pressures of Political Correctness was refreshing and most of all, entertaining. It made the listener look forward to what was coming next and the show worth paying attention to even through endless ads for buying gold and dubious herbal remedies.
When Rush Limbaugh started up, there was no Fox News Channel. CNN was still a very small cable show, there was no Drudge Report, there were no blogs. All that were available were old Bulletin Board Systems you dialed up to access the Usenet or just local information when it was available.
Rush Limbaugh had access to the Lexis-Nexis news and legal search system as well as contacts and information sources across the country. Every day Rush and his staff went through dozens of newspapers and news magazines, he watched news shows constantly to get fresh information. Through this work, Rush Limbaugh was able to bring news to the entire country that was available through no other source. Local newspapers would cover local stories the big papers ignored or buried. Events and personalities that weren’t given any notice by the new CNN or the established sources – NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS – he was able to put the spotlight on.
For the first time, the lock that network news had on information was cracked, stories were getting out that previously were spiked, ignored, or too local to get national coverage. Stories that embarrassed heroes of the left or made the Democratic Party look bad were broadcast to more than twenty million people every week. And Rush Limbaugh was the only place to get this news.
In addition to being the source of news, Rush Limbaugh also was a commentator, a very well-educated and discerning man who gave keen analysis – from a conservative perspective, at least. Rush Limbaugh had studied for decades issues such as economics, military, history, culture, politics, and other topics, learning under such men as William F Buckley jr. His analysis was unique on the radio or television, quite simply while the liberal perspective on every event was given instant and constant coverage, conservatives had to wait til once a week on Crossfire until Rush Limbaugh came along.
Nobody had his style and few had his take on issues and events. Rush Limbaugh’s perspective was incredibly fresh and different, in a media filled with a one-sided look at every event, Rush brought something new and to many people, far better.
In addition to his learning and his study, Rush Limbaugh had contacts. He could get news nobody else got, he had people he could draw on for information, knowledge, and perspective that were not readily available. As his fame and popularity grew, this body of contacts became vast and rapid. Email became a major nationwide reality, and through it Rush could get expert information and background data within seconds on any subject. Such personalities as President Bush the elder, Colin Powell, and Vice President Dick Cheney have all been on the Rush Limbaugh show, although he rarely has guests. These contacts gave an edge to the Rush Limbaugh show that no one else could match, and gave the show a life and importance that could not be equaled.
THEN WHAT HAPPENED?
As Rush Limbaugh became successful and accomplished many of his goals, this success inevitably reduced his interest and influence. Each goal that was achieved - President Clinton out of office, Republican control of congress, tax cuts - resulted in less reason to listen to what Rush Limbaugh had to say about the problems faced or the reasons for those goals to be achieved. Sometimes success is it's own enemy, as civil rights and feminist leaders discovered in the 70's and 80's by achieving almost all of their original goals and ideals. Once you get what you wanted done, why should anyone pay you any more heed?
Another effect is that Rush Limbaugh's theories, philosophy, historical insights, and political ideas became well-known and communicated in the debate across America. In 1988, the idea that tax cuts increase government revenue was considered absurd, "Voodoo economics." Now, the Laffer Curve describing this effect is accepted economic theory, and few politicians even suggest that this effect is impossible - even liberal politicians like Governor Richardson from New Mexico are implementing tax cuts. The more these ideas became mainstreamed or well-known, the less people needed to listen to Rush Limbaugh to hear or understand them. In other words, "familiarity breeds contempt" in that one of the primary reasons to listen to the show for analysis and information was no longer a draw.
The growth of the internet had a major impact on listeners to the Rush Limbaugh show as well. Due to efforts of men like Vice President Al Gore, (who although he did not invent the internet was instrumental in congress for getting funding for the infrastructure we now enjoy) the internet became widely available and cheap to access. It's popularity and access grew through the 1990's and has reached the point that an estimated 50% of all Americans either have internet access or use it at their local library or internet cafe.
This access gave rise to news sites such as The Drudge Report as well as hundreds of thousands of Web logs or blogs such as the one you are now reading. Political blogs bring news and collect information from around the world, providing news that previously was restricted to those with special contacts and expensive search access (such as Rush Limbaugh) or the news media its self. Since every news organization on earth has a website that posts news, and the millions of readers have access to local news and sources of their own, the aggregate effect is to bring the news to the fingertips of everyone who has the time and inclination to look.
No longer did people need to listen to Rush Limbaugh to hear the news that the primary sources cared little about or were uninterested in reporting. Now, a political news junkie nearly always has all the news stories Rush Limbaugh is going to cover on his show already read and studied, and blogs across the world have commented on them. Fox News Channel arrived on the cable television scene in 1996 and rapidly became the most-watched, most-trusted cable news show in America. So another major reason to listen to Rush Limbaugh's show was reduced.
But more than these events happening outside the show, there was a series of events in Rush Limbaugh's life that have affected his broadcast and his mood, if not confidence. Where Rush Limbaugh used to start each show as if it was the best thing that day, sometimes it feels like the man is merely doing a job. He takes more time off now than he ever did in the past, with welcome guest hosts filling in, but the lack of his presence is felt.
on October 8, 2001 Rush Limbaugh announced that his hearing had been slowly deteriorating over the years and he was effectively deaf in one ear and nearly so in the other. While this made a small but noticeable difference in his delivery and tone, it did interfere with his ability to take phone calls very effectively, led to misunderstandings in what was said, and required extended time off to go to the doctor, especially when he had a chochlear implant surgery done to enhance his hearing ability.
On July 14, 2003, ESPN announced that Rush Limbaugh would be a guest commentator on the Sunday NFL Countdown show. Rush Limbaugh sat in a booth significantly separate from the three primary hosts, and could call for an analysis similar to a referee breaking into the game play. Limbaugh rapidly demonstrated his star power and knowledge of the game (he was considered for ABC's Monday Night Football as an announcer and worked for sports organizations in the past) by giving the show a 10% ratings boost. Rush Limbaugh also proved his tendency for unabashed controversy and in what was likely the intended result of his hiring in the first place, said something about Donovan McNabb that within a few days created a firestorm of press outcry and he left the show.
In early October 2003 and in the same week as the McNabb controversy, the National Enquirer reported that Limbaugh was being investigated for illegally buying prescription drugs, and on October 10, Rush Limbaugh announced that he’d had an addiction to Oxycontin, a prescription pain killer that he’d been taking for back pain. He went through treatment to break this addiction, taking 30 days off from the show. He returned and is apparently free of the addiction, and the time spent in therapy and rehabilitation did have a significant effect on Limbaugh's admitted outlook and approach to life.
On June 11, 2004 the short marriage between Rush Limbaugh and a fan broke up, just as Rush was dealing with his drug addiction. He did not touch in the topic in depth, saying simply "Marta has consented to my request for a divorce, and we have mutually agreed to seek an amicable separation. As I said, it's a personal matter and I want to keep it that way. I don't intend to say any more about this on the air." Whatever the feelings of Rush about this or the reasons behind it, this cannot help but have an emotive toll and cause pain for anyone involved.
The final blow most recently was an investigation by Florida officials into charges of doctor shopping, the act of going to several different doctors to get a separate prescription from each for his medication. The investigation closed recently on April 28, 2006 with a settlement by Limbaugh.
This is personal opinion and my observation, others may vary in their analysis. Each of these has to take it’s toll, even with someone who is determined to bring excellence to every show, and it shows in his delivery and absences. A great deal of the joy he used to bring to each program is missing and Rush Limbaugh seems more angry or bitter than he once was, less willing to win over callers than mock and dismiss them. The humor is less frequent, and despite his protestations in the 1990's that he couldn't do as many updates or humorous bits on the left because they were less crazy when in power, the humor content and updates are fewer and more flat than they once were. Rush has shown a deliberate, stubborn tendency to re-run and do bits that were met with derision and rejection by his audience.
Rush Limbaugh's show is still informative, but less than it used to be. His analysis is often predictable to any strong conservative or political junkie. His impact is lessened simply by his success. And his personal life and events have resulted in many extended absences and has taken a bite out of the humor and entertainment on the Rush Limbaugh Show.
Many of these problems I suspect will correct themselves simply by being past the troubled times he faced in the recent past. While such events are emotionally damaging, time heals such wounds and often leaves us wiser. A wiser, more relaxed and happier Rush Limbaugh can only result in a return to excellence and entertainment that he set such a high standard for earlier in the show's run. In time, I suspect many of the people such as myself who are not listening so much these days will be tuning in again in the future to hear him once more.
In any case, all conservatives owe Rush Limbaugh a debt of gratitude for his insight, leadership, teaching, and entertainment through the years. His impact is immense on culture and politics, and he will go down in history as one of the most important figures in our time.
*UPDATE: Added introduction
**UPDATE: In the years since I wrote this, Democrats have taken control of congress and the White House. Rush Limbaugh's ratings and the number of listeners has leapt up to even more than he ever had at his height of popularity in the 1990's. It's been years since the divorce and drug problems and Rush has a real enemy to fight against, so he's gotten a lot more entertaining.