Politics

07.31.13

Rush Limbaugh’s Long, Slow March to Irrelevance

Don’t listen to the headlines—Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio supremacy ain’t over just yet. But it’s long been clear that his glory days are behind him. John Avlon on the final days of toxic right-wing talk.

Fox News presented an hourlong Rush Limbaugh infomercial on Greta Van Susteren’s show Tuesday night, allowing the embattled talk-radio giant to offer up uncontested howlers like this: “I get more grief than the al Qaeda gets.” And this: “I don’t see any pushback [by the GOP] against anything Obama wants to do.” And finally this: "I can't remember a time when it’s been more partisan, more divisive and getting worse—and being done on purpose.”

While Greta also found time to ask Rush’s opinion about the Zimmerman verdict (he pronounced it “uplifting”), no questions were asked about the big story that has Limbaugh in limbo: a Sunday-night report by Dylan Byers at Politico that suggested Rush and his right-wing talk colleague Sean Hannity are on the verge of being dropped by Cumulus radio. 

The report follows months of complaints by Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey about the impact of an advertiser boycott of Rush enacted after he called birth-control advocate Sandra Fluke a “slut” back in early 2012—a drought that has resulted in some $2.4 million in associated losses over the first quarter of 2013 alone as The Daily Beast reported in May. Combine those losses with the high cost of running Rush—his last contract, an eight-year deal inked in 2008, had a $400 million price tag—and an aging fan base of white men and at best you’ve got a recipe for renegotiations. At worst: ejection.

But while Rush’s toxic formula of right-wing talk radio is surely dying, that doesn’t mean rigor mortis has set in. Headlines blaring the demise of Limbaugh and Hannity are jumping the gun, according to interviews with multiple radio analysts.

“My personal prediction, based upon what I know of the industry, is that it’s going to happen,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine. “But I would never call you or call Politico or write in Talkers that it’s a fait accompli, because it’s not.” Harrison points out that Limbaugh and Hannity technically work for the radio conglomerate Clear Channel; their shows are syndicated to Cumulus stations. “Cumulus is basically saying—if in fact it’s true that they’re going to do this—that they don’t want to be in the business of selling that type of controversial political talk,” he says.

Meanwhile, Limbaugh is sending his own public signals, and he has still some bargaining chips left. “What you have here is public negotiation,” says Jerry Del Colliano, publisher of the radio-industry tip sheet Inside Music Media. “Limbaugh is telling everybody, ‘I'm not going anywhere,’ and I love that comment because he's right. He isn't going anywhere. [Dickey] is playing a real dangerous game. If you take the replacement characters for Cumulus—who they have left without Sean and Rush—you've got Geraldo, you've got Huckabee, and Michael ‘I Hope You Die of AIDS’ Savage. And do you know that those three replacements do not do anywhere near $4 million a year in revenue nationally, on all their stations? If [Dickey] doesn't do a deal,” Del Colliano says, he could just exit the talk game altogether, “and then flip to sports.”

“Limbaugh is telling everybody, ‘I'm not going anywhere,’ and he’s right.”

“I think it's a negotiation ploy,” concurs Randall Bloomquist, a longtime talk-radio executive and president of Bloomquist Media. “I don't know how it will turn out ... The talk-radio audience is aging out of the 25-54 demographics that advertisers love. But do not underestimate still how loyal these audiences are and how much money these shows make ... Cumulus and Clear Channel are almost like Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty going off the cliff together. They’re kind of locked, with both having a lot to lose.”

Who is Holmes and who is Moriarty remains to be seen, but the bottom line seems to be that this is more of a business story than a political story at the moment. It’s worth nothing, however, that the dynamics putting pressure on right-wing talk radio reflect the same demographic shifts that have some Republicans concerned about their long-term viability as a national party unless they reach out beyond their base. In addition, compliant fellow travelers in the conservative media establishment may now recognize that they can’t simply dismiss the problems with right-wing talk—and Rush in particular—as a liberal wish list. Yes, Rush Limbaugh is a giant in the business. But his business is shrinking.

“Rush Limbaugh's contract will never be renewed at that kind of money again—if he gets another contract,” says Del Colliano. “There are no people coming up. Gen X doesn't care about it. Gen Y absolutely is way beyond it. Even if Rush didn’t open his big mouth [over Fluke], he still would be in trouble because the demographics are so old that you can’t sell them to the advertisers.  It's over ... I think the talk-show hosts know it, too.”

“People at the top of broadcasting aren’t dumb,” concludes Bloomquist. “They can hear the rapids leading to the waterfall ahead.”