What can you say about Rush Limbaugh that he already hasn’t said about himself? The Big Voice on the Right. America’s Anchorman. The Doctor of Democracy. A living legend. The harmless, lovable little fuzzball operating with talent on loan from God.
His ideological opponents use slightly different language. The Daily Beast has called Limbaugh a “racist radio pioneer.” A 2012 CNN essay compared him to Josef Goebbels and asked the FCC to punish radio stations airing his program. Before his Senate days, Al Franken wrote a book titled Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. President Bill Clinton almost certainly was targeting Limbaugh when he laid part of the blame for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on “voices on the airwaves” who spread hate and leave the impression that “violence is acceptable.”
Through it all, for more than three decades, Limbaugh has been synonymous with talk radio. “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” broadcast weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. ET, remains the most-listened-to radio program in America. According to the show’s syndicator, Premiere Networks, the program airs on more than 650 stations nationwide, reaching more than twenty-five million listeners on a weekly basis.
That kind of success and longevity in any industry would be impressive, but in the fickle world of broadcasting it merits special notice. To fully appreciate Limbaugh’s rise, it helps to understand the playing field he entered back in 1988.
One year prior, in 1987, the Reagan administration and the FCC acted to roll back a nearly forty-year-old regulation on the holders of broadcast licenses called the Fairness Doctrine. The statute demanded that radio stations present both sides of controversial issues of the day. A corollary to the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to notify any public figure of a “personal attack” and allow him an opportunity to respond over the airwaves.
You likely can understand how these regulations chilled the development of any program that might have an overt partisan tinge. Sure, Larry King could conduct interviews on his national program and Bruce Williams could answer questions on financial matters from listeners, but politics was essentially a no-go zone.
Once the Fairness Doctrine was lifted, new programming possibilities emerged. And into this arena stepped the right man at the right time.
Rush Hudson Limbaugh III grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Despite his family’s history of producing a string of well- respected lawyers and judges, Limbaugh long had radio on his mind. He worked at his first station at the age of sixteen and honed his on-air style in stops in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Sacramento before making the jump to New York and national syndication in 1988.
Back then, radio’s biggest star was a seventy-year-old broadcaster named Paul Harvey. His morning and midday “News and Comment” show aired on hundreds of stations across the country, reaching millions of listeners. The broadcasts weren’t explicitly ideological, but it wasn’t hard to divine his point of view on any number of stories. Harvey’s signature style featured his sonorous voice and a healthy use of the dramatic pause (a little dead air never hurt anybody, as Limbaugh often says).
A profile on Harvey aired on the short-lived CBS TV newsmagazine West 57th in 1988, the same year Limbaugh went national. To watch it again today is to be reintroduced to many of the market inefficiencies of which Limbaugh would take advantage.
“To anyone who says the news media is slanted to the East and canted to the left, [Harvey] is the Midwest answer to that,” a friend of Harvey opines in the report. Limbaugh, the Missouri native, takes unbridled joy in puncturing the illusion of an unbiased media. He assails what he describes as the “drive-by media” for parachuting into a story, stirring up emotions to a fever pitch with half-truths and lies, then dropping any coverage when the real facts emerge.
The CBS reporter on the West 57th story, Bob Sirott, lauds Harvey’s “flag-waving, good-news attitude and his unusual mix of the important and the trivial.” A week listening to Limbaugh’s show would feature any number of stories illustrating the ideal of American exceptionalism, but it also could include detours into talk about his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers or the latest technology introduced by Apple.
Limbaugh was listening to Harvey, of course. He paid tribute to him on his radio show a few days after his death in 2009, calling him “the greatest ambassador and perhaps performer in the history of radio.” Limbaugh took the figurative torch from Harvey and continued his legacy of being the beacon for talk radio, the lodestar for an entire industry.
Limbaugh was the first real contender through the gates following the rollback of the Fairness Doctrine. But being first doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be the one who lasts. So why did he succeed, and how has he maintained his level of excellence?
Let’s start here: above almost all else, Limbaugh is an expert entertainer. So often when analyzing his show, the focus centers on his conservatism and political takes. But his ability to present a consistently appealing and enjoyable show, regardless of the news cycle, is peerless. Limbaugh is not reliant on the news of the day to drive his ratings; his show is a must-listen no matter who is in the White House or which party controls Congress.
As important as Limbaugh’s broadcasting skill was to the growth of his show, just as essential was his understanding of the objective of all radio: making money. “Do you know what bought me all this?” Limbaugh asked journalist Zev Chafets in 2008 as he gestured at his estate. “Not my political ideas. Conservatism didn’t buy me this house. First and foremost I’m a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates.” This was not a new observation. He said essentially the same thing early in his national radio career during a 1991 60 Minutes profile.
Attracting that audience was made easier because — surprise, surprise — Limbaugh is not the knuckle-dragging ogre he’s portrayed as in so many corners of the media. Just listen to the show: Limbaugh is upbeat, light- hearted, and optimistic at nearly all times. He is, as he often says, having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have.
One of Limbaugh’s most important innovations was to transfer the energy and irreverence of a 1970s Top 40 radio host to the political talk format. Listeners are more likely to stick around if it feels like everyone is having fun! On air, Limbaugh carries himself as some amalgam of William F. Buckley Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Paul Harvey, combined with the spirit of the great AM radio music jocks, like Larry Lujack of WLS in Chicago (“the only person I ever copied,” Limbaugh told the New York Times in 1990).
On air, Limbaugh carries himself as some amalgam of William F. Buckley Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Paul Harvey, combined with the spirit of the great AM radio music jocks.
Marry that style of broadcasting with an irrepressible work ethic and you’ve got the start of something really good. Someone who would know about that dedication, former Limbaugh producer Brett Winterble, wrote in an 2008 essay, “No one in this industry does more exhaustive show prep than Rush. The guy is a machine.”
Limbaugh gave a peek behind the curtain on a 2007 show, explaining he arrives at the office five hours before showtime to continue the research he began the night before. He estimated he only works his way through 30 to 40 percent of the “stack of stuff” he has ready for each program. Limbaugh is ultra-prepared for any twist or turn over the course of his three-hour broadcast, bringing his listeners stories and information they won’t hear anywhere else.
Back in 1994, Limbaugh shared an updated list of his “35 Undeniable Truths of Life” in his second book, See, I Told You So. The very first item states, “There is a direct singular American culture — rugged individualism and self-reliance — which made America great.” There’s no better example of this than his show, during which he has no one to rely but himself.
Limbaugh, in contrast with essentially all other national hosts, rarely welcomes a guest on the program for an interview. He takes perhaps a handful of phone calls each day. The vast majority of Limbaugh’s three hours are filled with impromptu monologues, punctuated by sound bites and audio clips illustrating his points. If you think that sounds easy, try talking about something, anything, in a coherent and entertaining manner for a couple of hours each day. Now do it every day for a week. Now do it for thirty-two years, and you’ll begin to understand the true talent of Limbaugh.
The difficulty of his high-wire act makes it all the more impressive that Limbaugh’s program has a never-ending momentum to it. It’s one thing to be entertaining, but it’s another to truly create compelling content, the kind that tempts you to stay in the car even after you’ve arrived at your destination. That’s what the “Rush Limbaugh Show” does every weekday of the year.
Listeners flocked to the show when it debuted in part because it told them they were not alone. In the days before the internet, Limbaugh cultivated a conservative community that eventually grew to include virtually every media market across the country. Broadcast via satellite, his program became a true national radio show, available coast-to-coast thanks to local radio stations that either believed in the message or coveted the massive audience that Limbaugh attracted.
That audience remains today because Limbaugh doesn’t treat his listeners as if they are below him. Like Ronald Reagan, he has faith in the wisdom of the American people. He makes the complex understandable for millions — with the language of a long-time friend.
Over the years, the intimacy of radio has helped to produce an unbreakable bond between audience and host. Limbaugh has been a source of stability and comfort, riding alongside his listeners through any number of crises and massive news events. His shows are dotted with hilarious parody songs, on-target nicknames for political opponents (Joe “Plugs” Biden, “Dingy” Harry Reid), and oft-repeated catchphrases that diehard listeners know by heart.
These days the die-hards are hearing a little less of Limbaugh, as he misses the occasional show to undergo treatment for his advanced lung cancer, with which he was diagnosed earlier this year. If anything, though, the news seems only to have strengthened the host–listener relationship. Days after the diagnosis was made public, a caller on the show asked to speak to producer Bo Snerdley off the air. He offered to donate a lung, if it were needed. Limbaugh was stunned. Snerdley then told Limbaugh he was getting two or three similar offers every day.
In the internet age, it’s easy to forget that for many years Limbaugh was not just the chief evangelist for conservatism in the media, he was the only voice espousing these ideas. Listeners heard arguments and points of view that were not featured anywhere else, save for the pages of a few magazines outside the realm of the mainstream media. Many younger conservatives now working in the political world cite Limbaugh’s show as a main influence on their beliefs. In a way, he was responsible for seeding the next generation (and now a second generation) of conservatives in America.
For his more than thirty years on “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” and for his work off-air on behalf of various charities, Limbaugh recently was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In marking the occasion, President Trump spoke for many millions of listeners, thanking Limbaugh for his “decades of tireless devotion to our country.”
Limbaugh’s impact on the radio industry itself cannot be overstated. In the mid-1980s, many listeners had been migrating to the FM band, where music sounded crisper and cleaner. If the AM band couldn’t succeed playing the hits, what would fill the void? Political talk, led by Limbaugh, was a godsend for many stations.
“He’s a phenomenon like the Beatles,” Michael Harrison, longtime publisher of Talkers, told Zev Chafets in 2008. “Before Rush Limbaugh there was nothing like talk radio. He’s been to talk what Elvis was to rock ’n’ roll. He saved the AM dial.”
When Paul Harvey passed away at the age of ninety, ABC Radio Network, which syndicated his programs, couldn’t figure out what to do. They tried other hosts, of course, briefly with Gil Gross and then with Mike Huckabee. But it turns out Harvey was the rarest of talents — someone who literally could not be replaced.
Whenever Limbaugh steps away from the golden EIB microphone, the radio industry, and America, will find the same thing to be true. Someone will be broadcasting in Limbaugh’s time slot, but his show, and his singular voice, will be utterly irreplaceable.
Scot Bertram spent fifteen years working in the talk radio industry. He currently serves as a lecturer in journalism and general manager of the student-run radio station at Hillsdale College.