Reprinted with permission from Press Run
Before Fox News there was Rush Limbaugh. Before Breitbart, InfoWars and QAnon, there was Rush, purposefully polluting American minds for profit. Today's billion-dollar, name-calling conservative media traces its origins to the rise of Limbaugh's three-hour radio show. But now, with the host's passing this year, the nationally syndicated program represents a propaganda void that's unlikely to be filled.
That's not to say there will be fewer, less dangerous conservative voices in the media, spreading deliberate lies and dividing Americans. There won't be a shortage there, particularly on cable TV, online, and with burgeoning podcasts. But it does mean that in the increasingly fractured media landscape that the uniquely powerful and national position that Limbaugh occupied on the AM dial will not be replaced.
Premiere Networks, which syndicates the show, is currently airing Limbaugh reruns instead of hiring a new host for the noon-to-three time slot. That's not ideal for radio station programmers across the country, since talk radio is supposed to revolve around current events. (Today on Rush Limbaugh: Why Obamacare will destroy America!) But are the existing options any better, in terms of finding new talkers who can command the attention of millions of right-wing followers each afternoon?
For years, talk show hosts mostly stayed clear of competing with Limbaugh's three-hour afternoon slot. Since his passing, Cumulus Media's Westwood One announced Fox News contributor Dan Bongino will launch a noon show starting in May. Meanwhile, former NRA flack Dana Loesch has signed a new three-year deal with Radio America to continue to her noon-to-three, right-wing show. Both hosts stand almost no chance of replicating Limbaugh's success or taking over his mantle. Stations could hire local hosts to fill that afternoon slot, but that costs more than signing up a nationally syndicated program.
Trying to launch a new conservative talk show during the Biden era also represents a huge challenge for GOP radio. Like Fox News, conservative radio seems to be struggling to land rhetorical punches against the Democratic president. (Look at how its Hunter Biden obsession has flopped.) Fixated on fighting cultural wars while Biden enjoys solid public support, the conservative media remains adrift in the Biden era, as Trump remains mostly in seclusion in Palm Beach, Florida.
"Biden, not only do I think is a terrible president in these last few months, it's just terrible for talk radio," Bongino recently admitted. "I think Biden is a disaster for the country and his ideas are an atrocity. But he's boring. He's just boring. It's going to be a challenge."
Another missing element will be the way the mainstream press treated, and often lauded, Limbaugh — this New York Times Magazine profile of Limbaugh from 2008 still reads like a 4,000-word press release, touting the AM troll as "an American icon." Overly impressed by his inflated claim of having 20 million listeners, the Beltway media treated Limbaugh as a Very Serious Person, even though he was a name-calling bully who often had no idea what he was talking about — he told listeners Covid-19 was no worse than "the common cold," and claimed the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump.
Still, the media loved to portray Limbaugh as deeply informed and influential, even as his ratings sagged, and presented the country club demagogue as a spokesman for (white) working class Americans. It's unlikely Ben Shapiro for instance, the far-right ideologue with a large following, is ever going to land that kind of glowing, mainstream media coverage.
Limbaugh helped save AM radio when he emerged as a talk radio star in the late 1980s at a time when AM stations had lost out to the cleaner, less static sounds of FM radio. At the same time, in 1987, Ronald Reagan's Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which had required stations to present politically "balanced" programming. That meant Limbaugh could bash Democrats for three hours nonstop every day. Fast forward three decades and Limbaugh's death arrived alongside AM's slow motion demise.
"Once a leading platform for popularizing conservative candidates and policies, talk radio is on the verge of becoming background noise, drowned out by a cacophony of voices on podcasts, cable TV and social media," the Washington Post reported this year.
The pandemic also hit talk radio hard. "2020 is the year that in-car AM/FM radio has hit the proverbial iceberg," Radio World reported. "The COVID-19 pandemic and its related lockdowns severely curtailed regular commuting journeys, where much of consumers' radio-listening originates."
The right-wing talk format also skews way too old. "We're at the sea-change moment," Radio America's Mike Paradiso recently told Axios. "At some point, the stations need to make a shift to bring in younger listeners."
Demographically, that's just not going to happen on AM radio. Today, fewer than 8 percent of those who regularly listen to talk radio are between the ages of 25 to 54, according Nielsen's research. And just 4 percent of consumers 18 to 34 listen to talk stations.
Online, Limbaugh's presence had also been dwindling. In January of 2020, his website ranked as the 15th most popular among conservative outposts, according to TheRighting's analysis. By January 2021, the Limbaugh site had fallen out of the top 20. In terms of audience size, last November RushLimbaugh.com drew 1.4 million unique visitors, compared to Fox News' 130 million for that month.
For three decades, Rush Limbaugh held a uniquely powerful and influential position in American media. Thankfully, that won't be replicated on the AM dial.