My City Was Gone

Progressives in Massachusetts—and, heck, anyone in Massachusetts with a lick of common sense and common decency—are still celebrating over the news that WRKO-AM, the state’s longtime distributor of right-wing agitprop, has decided to drop Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated radio show, which the station has broadcast for the better part of two decades. This news comes just weeks after Limbaugh’s program was tossed from an Indianapolis wingnut-radio station.

Limbaugh, of course, has never recovered from the advertiser backlash following his 2012 rhetorical assault on Sandra Fluke. As former iHeartMedia executive Darryl Parks noted earlier this year, Limbaugh has essentially killed his own industry:

Today’s talk radio, as we know it, is fast fading into the sunset because of a format stuck with 1990’s rhetoric, each day addressing topics few care about. A constant right-wing political drumbeat that no longer resonates. A format where its practitioners can’t define the word entertainment. A format attracting fewer people, men or women, under 65. A format fewer advertisers are interested in buying because of its aging audience.

Don’t believe the propaganda. There isn’t a 747 on a tarmac full of advertisers waiting to buy into shows like Rush Limbaugh’s…

or years people have asked me, when does it end? I’ve always said, the last syndicated talk show to go down will be Rush Limbaugh’s. He was first “in brand.” If you’ve ever read a Reis and Trout book you know first “in” brand wins. I will add first “in” also means last “out.”

Premiere Networks and its owner iHeart Media has crammed down Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck on its talk stations, not allowing local stations to make needed changes to their programming, changes that could provide some hope of staying relevant. It was a great business model…in the 20th century! In business speak it’s called “vertical integration.” The company produces the product and then uses its distribution arm, its radio stations, to broadcast the shows. Guaranteed clearance, plus in Limbaugh’s case and some of Hannity’s stations, the local stations have to pay a “rights fee” in addition to the barter commercial inventory they broadcast from the network. There was no negotiation whether to broadcast the show or what fee was to be paid. Here’s the number you pay was the only conversation during the budget process. This, as you can imagine, affected cash flow and coupled with the increasing demands for talk stations to generate more profit, it forced local stations to lay-off other talk hosts, producers and gut news departments. Talented people left the radio business and the death spiral for talk radio began. It began years ago.

All was good until the world changed and the aging, pissed off Baby Boomers (I’m one of those too – Baby Boomer – not pissed off) were no longer relevant. Extreme political ideas no longer resonated with listeners as generational power shifted from Boomers to Gen X’ers and now Millennials, groups that have a more centrist belief in regards to many social issues. They’re mostly OK with Hispanics, lesbians, smoking pot and women using birth control. Many are even OK with the first African American President.

Did talk radio reflect these changes? No. Do good radio stations reflect the lives of their target audiences? Yes.

You have to wonder if the folks who were responsible for the launch of Limbaugh’s syndicated program in 1988–the folks who essentially wanted to create a “Radio Reagan,” who wanted to artificially extend the Reagan administration past its constitutionally limited time by propping up a man who would defend and attack the same ideas and politicians Reagan defended and attacked during the course of his political career (something Reagan himself alluded to in a 1992 letter to Limbaugh) knew it would probably start falling apart by this point, that the man they handpicked to fill this role would begin his decline about a quarter-century after this bizarre enterprise started.

The folks behind the Limbaugh project were obviously ideologues, but they weren’t stupid. Reaganism shifted wealth upwards in the 1980s, and the folks behind the Limbaugh project didn’t want the gravy train to end after the conclusion of Reagan’s second term. What better way to keep the good times going than by hiring Limbaugh to promote Reaganism into the 1990s and beyond, while rhetorically butchering anyone who disagreed with the 40th president’s wayward economic policies? Limbaugh was simply the vagrant recruited to distract the cops while the thieves looted the bank. However, those cops couldn’t be distracted forever.

The folks behind the Limbaugh project had to have known that at some point, Limbaugh would fall down while the American people woke up. Thus, I assume they’re not really upset by Limbaugh’s self-destruction. They’ve completed their heist. They stole civility, decency, rationality and democracy–not to mention billions of dollars–while Limbaugh distracted the masses. Now that the masses appear to be waking up, let’s resolve to get our stolen property back.

UPDATE: From 1995, PBS Frontline’s series “Rush Limbaugh’s America,” about Limbaugh’s rise to power in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

Part I. Part II. Part III. Part IV. Part V. Part VI.

SECOND UPDATE: More from the Boston Globe and Darryl Parks.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.