If you have ever been to a store and saw something you didn’t know you wanted, but bought it on the spot, that explains the phenomenon that became The Rush Limbaugh Show.
Listeners were drawn to his ability to explain Main Street conservative values and aspirations in an entertaining way. People thought, “He says things I’ve been thinking.” It was something they had never heard on the radio and didn’t even know they wanted until they heard Rush. The then-new voice was an “on the spot must have,” and The Rush Limbaugh Show became an instant mid-day radio habit for millions.
I was not a “ditto head.” To be sure, his was a fresh sound, and I really enjoyed listening. I agreed with some of what Rush said and disagreed with other things. But from the start, I was in awe of his talent and ability to captivate his listeners. Because I’m in radio, I heard Rush in a different way than most. I came to enjoy his program less over the last few years as a listener. But as a broadcaster, I continued to admire his ability to maintain that sizeable audience, but I think he became more pompous and overbearing over the last decade. He was still interesting in the way he made his points, but I found him less entertaining.
I managed KARN Newsradio in Little Rock in the early days of the Rush Limbaugh Show. I did not originally warm to the idea of replacing “live and local” talk radio with some syndicated loud mouth from New York. I regretted that decision as his ratings skyrocketed nationwide. Another radio station had the original rights to the show in Little Rock. It took well over a year, but I was able to persuade the syndicator to move the show to KARN.
Broadcasters around the country will explain Rush single handedly saved the dying AM band. In Little Rock, some advertisers shunned the controversial show. Others flocked to advertise on Rush. Restaurants would set aside private areas as “Rush Rooms,” where you could enjoy lunch with Rush as your companion.
Rush’s popularity led to the launch of attempted copycats at both the local and national levels. Some even say Fox News would not exist today had Rush not demonstrated the available audience for conservative outlets and the ability to monetize those fans.
Talkers Magazine estimates that at his highest point, Rush had a weekly audience in excess of twenty million listeners. That same industry trade journal says over the last decade, his audience decreased by 25 percent. But even with that, Rush maintained the biggest audience in talk radio in America.
Rush’s success in his earlier days came because even non-conservatives listened. He’d set up his evangelist tent every day and preach his conservative sermon for three hours. He told stories. He created memorable “bits”, like “Environmental-wacko football picks” and had a musical producer create fun sarcastic parody songs about liberals or liberal causes. Research showed even non-believers found him entertaining and his monologues compelling enough to capture their attention.
Some Arkansas hosts thought (maybe still think) the secret sauce for success is being ultra right wing on everything. But the audience size of those local conservative shows paled in comparison to Rush’s Arkansas ratings. Audience numbers I’ve seen show listener numbers to those local shows are small by comparison to Rush, but to be fair, still loyal.
Rush only took a handful of callers on his show. And a caller got seconds, not minutes to make their point. He hardly ever had a guest. You have to host a talk show to appreciate what it takes to produce 15 hours of content every week while not leaning on callers or guests. Rush’s turn of phase, comprehensive daily preparation and his unique approach to topics was his secret sauce.
On social media within minutes of his death, the Rush bashing began, with posts calling him everything from a hate monger to a bigot to a misogynist. But there were also posts of mourning. To hear him was to have an opinion about him.
His obituary in Thursdays’ New York Times detailed why so many disliked him. From his comments on race to women to the poor to gays, Rush could never be accused of being “woke”. But the more the “left” hounded him, the more his ditto heads loved him. He had the megaphone and courage to amplify his brand of conservatism, caring not what liberals thought. I often thought he enjoyed getting under their skin.
If he really did have “talent on loan from God” as he said daily, his followers are in mourning because last Wednesday that loan came due.