Last week it was announced that Rush Limbaugh's radio show will continue to be carried by all but one of the Cumulus stations he's on, and he will be moving to Clear Channel's recently acquired WOR in New York. The much ballyhooed boycott campaign has failed, much as I said it would.

Tune in for more below the orange swirl...

Like all commercial radio programming, Limbaugh's show is essentially bait. Its purpose is to attract listeners to advertising messages. From the stockholders' point of view the content is irrelevant; Limbaugh can whistle La Marseillaise or count backwards in Albanian for all they care, as long as people keep tuning in to hear the ads. That is the essence of the commercial radio business model.

Radio listeners today have so many choices that it usually doesn't make sense for a broadcaster to try to attract every listener in his community. Instead, a station will aim at one segment of that community -- say, women aged 25 to 54 -- and focus on serving it exclusively, ignoring the rest. All of the station's programming and promotions will be designed to appeal to its target audience, the goal being to make that station a "must buy" for advertisers looking to reach that segment of the community.

Rush Limbaugh's program is intended to appeal to men over 35, and is generally carried by stations that appeal to that group. The same stations often carry college sports, which is why I see posts here accusing various colleges and universities of supporting Limbaugh's venomous pontifications. The colleges are, in fact, playing much the same game as the broadcasters, positioning themselves where they can reach their target audiences most effectively. The stations win; the colleges win; the advertisers win. It is a Ferengi's dream.

One of radio's dirty secrets is that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If Limbaugh calls Sandra Fluke a whore, he alienates a lot of women -- who are not his target audience -- while entertaining his male listeners and encouraging them to stay tuned to see what he might do next. The subsequent firestorm of bad press won't hurt him at all; at the worst, a few advertisers might make a show of moving their ads out of Limbaugh's time slot, running them at other times of the day. The stations still get the advertisers' money, listeners continue to tune in, and Limbaugh gets a lot of undeserved media attention. What's not to like?

In 1957, when I was born, there were many fewer stations than now. With the rise of television, radio stations moved away from national radio networks controlled by the likes of RCA's David Sarnoff and began running local programming with live disk jockeys and recorded music. FCC rules limited a broadcast station owner to just seven AM stations, seven FM stations, and seven TV stations; almost all stations, even in the largest cities, were locally owned and operated. Broadcasters had a stake in the communities they served and reputations to maintain; licenses came up for renewal every three years, and broadcasters held their licenses as public trustees. At renewal time, anyone could file a competing application for a station's license, so station owners went to great lengths to build impeccable public service records.

At its core radio is relationship building, whether between an advertiser and a station, or between a station and its listeners. The broadcasters of my youth built their modest fortunes on personal connections with the banker down the street, the restaurant owner across town, the car dealer over the hill, the ministers of local churches, and of course the local mayor and police chief. It was an intensely personal business, with deals being struck at golf courses or Rotary Club luncheons. In some smaller markets radio is still like that today, but in most places it has become a very different business.  

Stations now tend to be run by large publicly traded (and highly leveraged) corporations; one company -- Clear Channel -- owns more than 800 stations and programs many of them from distant cities. There are few live local voices; satellite technology and the Internet have brought network radio back with a vengeance, and computers take the place of disk jockeys. A broadcasting corporation today has little or no stake in local communities; most of its business is done with national or regional ad agencies, and since the Telecommunications "Reform" Act of 1996, it need not fear license renewal challenges. With the demise of the Fairness Doctrine and the relaxation or outright abolition of most of the old public service obligations, the rise of Limbaugh and his imitators should be no surprise.

Radio has become an arms-length business in which all that matters is the bottom line; unchecked by any public outcry, broadcasters race against one another to cut costs but pay little heed to the corrosive effect of their sensational, provocative, simplistic, and one-sided program content on the communities they claim to serve. In this context, boycotting Rush Limbaugh's advertisers is clearly pointless; until his target audience tires of him, he's going to keep his bully pulpit, whatever you, I, or millions of our friends may do or say.

What is needed is the wholesale re-regulation of broadcasting in the interest of the listening public. Until that happens, we can expect only more of the same.

Your Email has been sent.