It took me a few days to finally put all the pieces together here, but I think I finally understand what Premiere Radio Networks, Rush Limbaugh's syndicator, really had in mind when it dropped that "suspending barter ads" bombshell earlier this week.
All the inside baseball, just beyond that swanky orange curtain separating First Class from the rest of the passengers out here on DailyKos Airlines...
I think it's fair to say that nobody quite got this one right on Monday night when Premiere's memo leaked. At first, yours truly thought Premiere was pulling all ads out of the four minutes it sells nationally during each hour of the Rush show.
By Tuesday, it became clearer: what Premiere was really telling stations was that all "barter ads" should be pulled for two weeks from all of its news/talk shows. This actually goes beyond Rush - it's also Mark Levin and Sean Hannity and, from our side, Randi Rhodes. All of those shows are still going out to affiliates with their own national ads intact, to the extent advertisers still exist to sponsor them.
But as part of the deal stations make to carry those shows, and in addition to a lot of cash stations pay for Rush's show specifically, the stations also agree to carry a certain number of "barter" spots. Premiere provides those ads from its national advertisers and stations schedule them wherever they have room on their schedules. That might be during a station's own local shows...or, frequently, during "local" breaks in other national shows. The Premiere memo freed stations from any obligation to run those barter ads for the next two weeks, giving that time back to stations to run their own local ads (or, if they can't fill it any other way, with Lifelock ads...yeccch.)
So why was Premiere giving up that revenue? The answer: because its affiliates suck at following directions...at least according to someone who should know:
According to Bloomberg, several national advertisers (esp. Geico) are upset that their ads continue to run in Limbaugh's show in spite of specific orders to the contrary. This is an age-old local station problem when networks scatter commercials outside of live network programs. Stations are notoriously sloppy about controlling where inventory runs when it's not already within specific shows. Geico says it will cancel its entire radio campaign if this isn't dealt with. (I heard a Geico spot in Limbaugh last week on WABC.)That's from John Mainelli, who knows his stuff. John was the program director at WABC in New York during its heyday in the 1990s, and later went on to program "Free FM" with Opie & Anthony. He even programmed Air America for a little bit.
When he says this is Premiere playing "better safe than sorry" by giving up a little revenue now to keep some of these advertisers from ditching them completely, you'd do well to listen.
And notice: it turns out this does have a little something to do with that Friday memo that so many of us blew out of proportion. Remember that one, with the 98 advertisers (or however many it was) who said they didn't want to be associated with any controversial programming? By itself: not a big deal. The networks really do send those out all the time. But when there's a whole bunch of us keeping close tabs on what ads are running when? And when the stations themselves can't be trusted to keep the ads from running when they shouldn't? Ahhh...then it all comes to a head. Here's John again:
Ironically, this is partial pay-back for the ruthless job-cutting by Clear Channel and other too-big radio companies. Most stations no longer have enough people in their traffic departments to handle details like properly scheduling outboard network spots.Now that's some delicious irony there.
Again, just so we're all clear on this: Advertisers who are paying Premiere money but specifically asking not to appear during Limbaugh's show are discovering their ads are still showing up during Limbaugh's show, because some of those "barter" ads are being scheduled by local stations in clear violation of the network's instructions. This happens all the time in radio. But it only becomes an issue when those advertisers continue to get serious negative blowback from us - and it's clearly becoming a pretty big issue.
Even more succinctly: By using our free speech to tell advertisers we find their support of Limbaugh unacceptable, we are making an impact.
Here's what else this tells us: Premiere is still acting as though this will blow over. This isn't exactly the "cooling-off period" some observers have painted it as. What Premiere is doing now is trying to make 100% sure that its advertisers who don't want to be heard during Limbaugh don't appear anywhere during Limbaugh, nationally or locally. But it's leaving its remaining national advertising during Limbaugh intact, apparently believing that advertisers like LifeLock and Hillsdale College who want to be associated with Limbaugh should stay right where they are. (As, in fairness, is their right.)
Unfortunately for Premiere, it still might not be enough. I am increasingly convinced that the most important person in Rush Limbaugh's life is now Lew Dickey, the man at the helm of Cumulus. That's the company behind the Mike Huckabee show that's about to launch in Rush's timeslot, and it's the company that owns some of Rush's biggest affiliates in NY, Chicago, DC, Dallas and Detroit. And if you scroll down to point 5 in my last diary about Rush, you can see why those Cumulus stations could make Rush's very bad spring even worse in a few weeks.
What should we be doing in the meantime? I still think that the biggest pressure point we can keep banging away on is local - specifically, the thousands of advertisers whose purchase of ad time on local stations gives them the revenue they need to continue to justify spending lots of money on the Limbaugh show. The more uncomfortable those advertisers are, the more uncomfortable the local stations are...and the more interested they'll be in the Huckabee show as an alternative.
One more thing: if you go to see your local advertisers, perhaps you could ask them a question like this one, especially if they defend Rush...
"What if it were your employee? If your employee called a customer a slut or a whore or asked her for a video of herself having sex, how long would that person stay employed with you? How long would you expect your customer to continue doing business with you?"
By making what's now an affirmative decision to keep their ads running during Rush, local advertisers are effectively employing him to spread their message. Let's make sure they know how we feel about what their employee is saying.