When Rush Limbaugh went on the air last year and called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” he had no clue that his words would cost the industry of right-wing talk radio hundreds of millions of dollars and bring companies to the brink of bankruptcy. Nor did anybody else. After all, Limbaugh has a long history of insulting women without any consequences, whether it was comparing 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton to a dog, or calling feminists “nazis.” When a group called StopRush called for an advertiser boycott of Limbaugh's show in the wake of the Fluke controversy, Limbaugh probably never imagined that it could touch him, especially after he offered a half-hearted apology for his comments.
From the start of his career, Limbaugh had carefully built a firewall that he thought would protect himself from the constant turmoil in the unreliable world of radio ratings, calling it “ratings insurance.” He carefully chooses and cultivates advertisers to assure their loyalty to him. Limbaugh noted two decades ago, “I realized that the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising.” As Limbaugh put it, “if I was ultimately going to succeed I had to get myself actively involved in the revenue stream of the radio station.” Early in his radio career in Sacramento, Limbaugh tried to demand control over what advertisers would be allowed on his show, and when he went national, Limbaugh attained that control.
In my book, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh's Assault on Reason, I explained why I thought Rush was right: “Boycotts can't affect Limbaugh because many of his advertisers are not major retailers, but midsize online companies that rely on Limbaugh loyalists for a substantial part of their business.” Crain's New York Business noted, “A good portion of the show's inventory is sold to direct-response advertisers who aren't worried about their corporate image.”
All of that turned out to be true. When the StopRush movement targeted Limbaugh's national advertisers, it was mostly unsuccessful. A handful of Limbaugh's advertisers bolted during the worst of the Fluke crisis, only to be quickly replaced. Limbaugh suffered a blow, but one that he would have easily survived.
But the world of syndicated radio has two advertising markets: the national advertising sold for Limbaugh's show by Premiere Radio Networks (owned by Clear Channel), and the local advertising sold by the individual radio station. (Traditionally, syndicated shows split the ad time in half, with the show offered for free, but Limbaugh's popularity allows him to charge stations to run the show in a few top urban markets.)
Limbaugh exerted enormous control over his half of the advertising time. What he couldn't control, however, was the half sold by the radio stations themselves. And it was there that a dirty little secret about right-wing talk radio was exposed, with enormous financial consequences. A funny thing happened when the StopRush movement identified Limbaugh's advertisers and contacted them: these companies had no clue that they were advertising on Limbaugh's show, and they wanted nothing to do with him in the wake of the Fluke controversy.
It turned out that the sales departments at local radio stations (which were increasingly owned by enormous media corporations such as Clear Channel and Cumulus) had gotten lazy during the Bush bubble. Instead of carefully cultivating loyal advertisers for Limbaugh's show, the sales departments simply sold large blocks of ad time to account agencies for their clients, often without telling them what show they were played on. Many companies were paying for advertising on Limbaugh's show who had explicitly prohibited their ads from appearing on Limbaugh and other controversial hosts.
When the StopRush movement began targeting advertisers in the wake of Limbaugh's Fluke gaffe, these companies responded by yanking their ads, not only from Limbaugh, but from any controversial host. All of a sudden, corporations were paying attention to the controversial content of the shows where they advertised. The conservative monoculture of talk radio that proved so profitable in the 2000s turned out to be extremely vulnerable to a boycott movement.
In the early years of Limbaugh's syndicated radio show, he might be heard on a station that included shows with local, less political hosts, or even a liberal. But Limbaugh's success inspired a bevy of imitators, from Glenn Beck to Michael Savage, and radio stations discovered that ratings went up when they surrounded Limbaugh's show with like-minded right-wing hosts. And the advertisers leery of Limbaugh wanted nothing to do with anyone else who might say similar things.
Now the Cumulus radio network is blaming Limbaugh's comments for financial losses, while Limbaugh is reportedly threatening to leave the network at the end of the year when their contract expires due to his annoyance at being blamed.
Don't bet on that happening. First of all, Limbaugh cares about money much more than loyalty. Second, Limbaugh doesn't control what station he appears on. He's a hired employee for Clear Channel, and while his buddies make the decisions about his radio stations, Limbaugh doesn't have the final word. Considering how much money Limbaugh has cost Clear Channel, it's hard to believe that they'll be willing to sacrifice even more money for his personal vendetta against mild (and accurate) criticism from Cumulus executives. Third, the harm Limbaugh caused to Cumulus has already happened, and was the result of their own mismanagement. So dumping him won't improve the bottom line or bring back advertisers who have banned controversial advertising.
The reality is that Limbaugh's stupid and sexist remarks only exposed a corrupt practice of hiding the truth from advertisers that was widespread among talk radio stations in order to boost profits.
Ironically, while Limbaugh may have brought down conservative talk radio, he personally hasn't lost a penny. In 2008, at the height of the economic bubble, Limbaugh signed an eight-year contract extension worth $484 million, and he still makes over $80,000 every hour he's on the air. But when Limbaugh's contract is up in 2016, he will almost certainly suffer a significant cut in any future contract because the vulnerabilities of the talk radio industry have become clear, and the liability of Limbaugh to a radio station is now obvious.
None of this will actually end the reign of right-wing talk radio, which dominates over the far smaller world of progressive radio. The advertiser boycotts have hit all controversial programming, but a growing economy will soon turn losses into profits again, albeit not to the degree seen before. The scandal of hidden advertising will continue to hurt profits at talk-radio stations, but Limbaugh will continue his show to his massive audience. However, the StopRush movement has proven me, and many other doubters, wrong: the public does have a powerful voice that can influence what is heard on the airwaves.
Crossposted at LimbaughBook.