Whatever happened to Mike Huckabee?
I confess, I never got the idea from the get go.
A political idea that is a regular loser in the political marketplace was being marketed as a sure-fire winner in talk radio. And marketed is an understatement about all of the hype that swirled around this particular radio launch.
To put names to this curious fantasy, the moderate Republican former Governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, was to take on Rush Limbaugh in a venture sponsored by the public company that is Cumulus Media.
Not since the Titanic sailed a hundred years ago amidst a public relations blowout about the ship's un-sinkability has there been such hype.
Let's remind of all the pre-launch hoopla for this venture that at the time we tagged as "RINO Radio" -- talk radio for Republicans in Name Only.
• On March 12, Media Matters reported on a media conference call by Cumulus, gloating in a headline: "Cumulus CEO: Limbaugh Firestorm 'Very Helpful' To New Huckabee Show" -- the "firestorm" in question a reference to the kerfuffle over Sandra Fluke.
• On March 12, the Daily Beast's favorite RINO David Frum gushed on hearing the news that "Mike Huckabee Brings on Rush Limbaugh's Decline."
• On March 13, over on the web pages of Radio Ink, the headlined story read that in the wake of the Fluke kerfuffle, Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey "has been touting the [Huckabee] show as a replacement for Rush…"
• On March 18, Newsmax headlined: "Huckabee Readies to take on Rush in Talk Radio Battle." This story was remarkably up front about the idea behind the Huckabee/Cumulus venture. It began this way:
Earlier this week, Cumulus Media sent out an email blast to fellow radio station owners with a photoshopped picture of former U.S. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, promoting him as the conservative talk radio host of the future.
Though the email did not name Rush Limbaugh, the long-running, top-rated talk radio host whose program is nationally syndicated by Cumulus' rival, Clear Channel Communications, the intent was obvious to some recipients.
"They are going after Rush's affiliates," said one radio company executive who received Cumulus' email and spoke on condition of anonymity. "They are positioning Huckabee as the safe, non-dangerous alternative to Rush and saying to station owners, 'If you are looking for conservative content, we want you to consider our guy instead of theirs.'"
• On March 19, the Wall Street Journal reported that "With the slogan 'more conversation, less confrontation,' the syndicator behind 'Huckabee,' Cumulus Media Networks, has been pitching the new show to advertisers as a less combative alternative to Mr. Limbaugh."
• On April 1, in New York Times story headlined "Talk Radio Face-Off Approaches," Lew Dickey marveled at the ratings that would be seen for RINO radio: "We haven't seen the 25-54 results with the stable of talent that's out there today. We think we can improve on that with this approach."
• On April 7, in a Politico story headlined "Mike Huckabee Takes Aim at Rush Limbaugh," both Cumulus co-COO John Dickey and Huckabee were plain about the plan. Said Dickey, comparing the about-to-launch Huckabee show to Rush: "This is going to be safer from a commercial standpoint, and more respectful from a listener's perspective. I think that environment has been sorely lacking in talk radio."
Huckabee himself told Politico: "Our tagline is, 'More conversation, less confrontation'…"
• On May 17, Bloomberg's Business Week blared, "For Cumulus Media, Huckabee Takes On Limbaugh," the article filled with the by-then three-month old story line about how Huckabee had "the right mix of name recognition, likability, contacts, and the dexterity to take on different subjects without sounding harsh or grating." That would be "harsh or grating" like… well… You Know Who.
And so it went. You get the picture.
If there were a reporter anywhere within reach of the Dickey Brothers bull horn they were getting the pitch: "Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Huckabee to topple Limbaugh!"
Fair enough. Everybody loves to fantasize about beating champs, whether the champ in question is Muhammad Ali, James Bond, or Rush Limbaugh.
But at some point, it's fair to say something like: "Mr. Goldfinger, you've tried everything. After failing to laser Bond to death, shoot him to death, run him off-the-road-to-death, not to mention snap his neck with Odd Job's steel-rimmed hat… well, sir, Mr. Bond is not only still alive he is now busily disarming the nuclear weapon you believed would destroy Ft. Knox. Mr. Goldfinger, sir….. do you have a Plan Z?"
Eventually, to recall this memorable moment in the film, Goldfinger did come up with Plan Z -- which ended with the famous Bond enemy being sucked out of a plane window. Never to be heard from again.
Well, Governor Huckabee has now been on the air for three months. It would seem fair to ask the obvious questions:
- Where has all the Huckabee-challenging-Rush buzz gone?
- Where are the media conference calls with the Dickey brothers trumpeting the success of RINO Radio?
- Where are those Media Matters stories gleefully reporting that Huckabee has finally done in the hated Rush?
- Where are those David Frum columns trumpeting the demise of Rush Limbaugh at the hands of Mike Huckabee?
- Where are all those radio trade paper stories, the stories in Bloomberg, Politico, Mediaite, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (among many others) trumpeting the massive surge in the beloved 25-54 age demographic Lew Dickey was so confident would boost Huckabee to hot success?
- Where are all the stories about how Huckabee's conversational style has fatally wounded Rush by attracting waves of new young listeners? Where are the stories about how this massive influx of the young has fundamentally transformed conservative talk radio?
- Where are the hot stories from Cumulus listing Huckabee's stations so the world can see exactly how widely accepted the Huckabee show is on non-Cumulus stations? Where are the stories boasting of the number and identity of the top tier stations who broadcast Huckabee? Are these stations not being ballyhooed because the show is essentially relegated to small stations with little market reach?
- Where are the stories about the raison d'être of the radio business -- or any business? That would be: revenues. Making money. If this is such a stunningly successful business plan where are the stories on the all-important news called revenues? After all, companies are in business to make money. Where are the stories on how much net revenue Huckabee's show is generating? Where are the stories on all the profit actually being made taking on Rush Limbaugh? In the words of Tom Cruise as Jerry McGuire: "Show me the money!"
But in fact, what do we have here?
Just months ago the Dickeys were everywhere talking about what a brilliant business idea it was to take on the champion of conservative talk radio (and by extension the conservative world well beyond). The impression left at the almost eerie silence on the subject these days is not unlike the uncomprehending silence that is said to have rippled through the Titanic after it hit the iceberg: a silence caused by disbelief, followed shortly thereafter by quiet panic. Quiet panic that inevitably gives way when all hell breaks loose as, fingers starting to point angrily and with predictable certainty, the ship sinks.
Or to wax Bondian, Huckabee... sorry... Goldfinger… gets sucked out of the talk radio airplane window.
What brought all this to mind was the New York Times Magazine story this past Sunday on Governor Huckabee. The Times doing the predictable if always odd version of the kind of backhanded puff piece a liberal outlet always reserves for moderate Republicans.
The fact that this was the Huckabee story du jour -- not a rash of stories everywhere on the success of the challenge to Rush -- only drew attention to the Sherlock Holmes-nature of the story. In the Silver Blaze, Holmes has this conversation with a Colonel Ross:
Ross: "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Ross: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
The "curious incident" in the Times interview with Huckabee? The solitary reference to his radio show was this exchange with Times reporter Andrew Goldman:
Goldman: When I heard you were starting a syndicated radio show in April that would go head to head with Rush Limbaugh, I wondered if you were going after him because he hadn't been kind to your candidacy in '08.
Huckabee: He's been very critical of me and very wrong. It's one thing to have an opinion, but the opinion needs to be based on fact. Even a few months ago, he said that I had endorsed Mitt Romney, when in fact I had not. I did not endorse anyone in the primary. But all of that had nothing to do with my decision to do a radio show.
Can you spot the Holmes-like "curious incident" -- the dog that didn't bark?
Sure you can. There was not a word about how stunningly successful the Huckabee show is. Not a solitary peep.
Does anyone seriously believe that if this RINO Radio venture were overflowing with success in challenging Rush -- that Mike Huckabee wouldn't be bursting his buttons with joy, and not just in pages of the New York Times? That the Dickey brothers and Cumulus would not be everywhere with this story?
That front pages of websites and newsprint alike from the Times to Politico to Mediaite to Bloomberg and on and on endlessly would not be humming with "Huckabee Overtakes Rush" stories?
Of course not.
Instead, we have President Obama out there on the stump attacking Mitt Romney on health care for "abandoning a principle that you fought for, for six years simply because you're getting pressure for two days from Rush Limbaugh…"
The President's attack was telling. If the Huckabee venture were as stunningly successful as predicted -- then Obama would be attacking Huckabee. But obviously, that's not the case. Yet another sign, surely, of why all the silence in the media on Huckabee's standing.
Not just silence but total, complete, silence.
Has Cumulus in fact built a Titanic in the shape of a radio show called The Mike Huckabee Show?
Time will tell. And it will tell relatively soon, doubtless depending on the amount of cash that gushes into the Cumulus loss column by a given date.
But it is safe to say that the longer we go with what might be called "radio silence" on this venture, the more this silence will be seen as a sign that the Cumulus attempt to float the idea of RINO radio has already hit an iceberg.
An iceberg named Rush Limbaugh.