On Friday night, many of you saw my first diary on this topic, and I was gratified to see it spend some time on the Wreck List.
Several Kossacks suggested I republish it on Monday for some weekday eyeballs, and I'm happy to repost the link - but read on beneath El Garabato de Naranja Grande for more detail on what's likely happening behind the scenes with Rush, the decisions his affiliates are having to make, and how you can have maximum impact on the stations as they make these tough choices.
Before we get started, did you read Friday's diary yet?
Please do. Not because I need the ego boost, but because there's a lot of very well-intentioned energy bouncing up and down the Rec List and the Recent Diaries and the comments, and some of it's aimed at the right places, but some of it isn't going to do a lot where it counts, and we need to make every ounce of our efforts count.
In particular, pay close attention to the section about challenging a station's license at renewal time, and the excellent comments from Kossack rashaverak about precisely how to do that in a way the FCC can't ignore.
And then go read this, from one of the top FCC lawyers out there, explaining just how much of an expensive nuisance a license renewal challenge can be to a station.
Fired up? Ready to go? Good.
Now we move on to part 2...understanding how Rush's $20 million contract gets paid for, and why he's potentially in so much trouble.
Ignoring for the moment his outside income from website and newsletter subscriptions, t-shirts and overpriced crappy iced tea, Rush gets paid by selling his show to Premiere Radio Networks, the syndicator that's owned by Clear Channel, which is owned in part by Bain Capital.
Premiere makes its money two ways: it sells five minutes of advertising during Limbaugh's show to national advertisers, and it charges radio stations (a lot) to carry the show.
That national advertising is already in peril, as we've seen from the, er, mad rush of defections over the last few days. Will other advertisers step in to fill that time? Yes, probably...but they're likely to be even skeezier advertisers, and less likely to want to pay premium rates to be there.
I don't need to tell anyone here how to go after the national ads; we're doing a great job on that already. The local stations are another story, though. For many of them, it's likely that Rush is the single most expensive programming outlay they make.
How much a station pays for the show is, as you'd imagine, a closely guarded secret, but there's always a radio peon or two willing to talk, and from what I hear, the price tag in a fairly small Midwest market for one Rush affiliate is north of $90,000 a year.
To put that in perspective, a typical radio salary in a market that size is probably more like $35,000 or $40,000 for a local host, maybe twice that for a top-rated morning host. $90,000 is a lot of money to spend on three hours of programming, especially in the middle of the day when listenership is lower.
For stations that aren't owned by Clear Channel itself, there are some tough decisions coming up: can they continue to justify that kind of spending on a host who's demonstrably past his prime? One whose ratings were already sagging before his most passionate listeners began to turn on him?
Let's take a moment to look at how a typical radio station comes up with the money it has to pay to carry Rush. In exchange for paying for the show, a local station gets 16 minutes of local time during each hour of Rush. The first six minutes of that hour is typically used for national and local news. The national news (from CBS, ABC, CNN, Fox News Radio or a few other sources) is probably paid for by "barter." No cash changes hands. The station gets the news for free, in exchange for carrying national ads during the news and/or running network-supplied national ads at other times during its schedule.
(This is an important point: it explains why advertisers who "don't buy time during Rush" may still have their ads airing in these slots. They're really not "buying Rush," and the traffic systems that stations use to schedule these ads can't always turn on a dime, which is why some listeners still heard ads today from advertisers who say they've stopped buying time during the Limbaugh show.)
It's in the remaining ten minutes of "local" time during the hour that the local station has to cover the money it pays Premiere and then try to turn a profit. They do that, of course, by selling ads to local businesses. We can identify those local advertisers and use our free speech powers to tell them what we think of the programming they're supporting with their advertising dollars.
The dam is already starting to crack, at least in Hawaii - and it's clear that blowback from advertisers was a big reason why KPUA in Hilo became the first station to ditch Rush.
I guarantee you that in corner offices all over American radio this afternoon, a lot of nervous executives are looking around to see what their colleagues at other stations are doing. There is no herd mentality like the herd mentality of radio programmers, and nobody is as quick to throw a formerly top-rated personality under the bus as a radio station owner when the ratings start to turn...or when advertisers start getting skittish...or when listeners start showing up at the door, asking to see the public file and threatening to file against their license renewals.
We can help push that herd over that cliff.
Two more thoughts: First, when Rush did his huge deal with Clear Channel/Premiere, he may have inadvertently painted a huge target on himself. (Insert your favorite "well, the canvas was certainly big enough" joke here.)
Clear Channel was a public company then, but it's since gone private, and the two private equity firms (Thomas H. Lee and Bain Capital) that took it private have been ruthless about slashing costs and sending expensive talent packing as soon as the numbers stop adding up. The numbers for Rush only add up when he's at his peak. As soon as both revenue streams - national advertising and station payments - even threaten to start drying up, that $20 million or so a year suddenly looks very, very expensive to the beancounters. Nobody, not even Rush, is sacred to their spreadsheets. This isn't over yet, and if Limbaugh sounded nervous today, he had 20 million reasons why he should.
And second, very few people in the radio business actually like Rush. He's feared, sure, but he's neither liked nor respected. A lot of other national hosts go out of their way to help local stations, hosting local events and interacting with listeners and shmoozing with station executives. Rush doesn't do that. He doesn't show up at industry conferences, he doesn't speak up for the industry as a whole, and now this. When the chips are down, he's going to have very little goodwill on which to draw. Even for the station owners who know that his show helped save their failing AM stations a generation ago, his current behavior does nothing to answer the question, "What have you done for me lately?" And that's what the radio business has always been all about.
Once more with feeling: here's how you help make all of this happen. Go get 'em.
I'll be around the comments for a while if there are questions I can help answer.