If you want to know why Rush is freaking out over the Sandra Fluke fallout, follow the money.
Being too extreme has never been a problem for el Rushbo. Appeals to conscience and individual kindness weren’t going to provoke an apology alone. His email offering an initial apology after several days of attacking Fluke came because advertisers were heading to the exits. And the exodus hasn’t stopped.
On Monday, AOL and Allstate were among the major brands giving Rush the kiss-off, joining nine other national sponsors to date. Some local advertisers are starting to bail on el Rushbo as well, including Hadeed Carpet and Thompson Creek Windows in Washington, D.C. Toward the end of the day, Hawaii’s KPUA became the first station to cancel his show.
The horses are spooked. David Limbaugh, Rush’s brother, tweeted that “this jihad against Rush is a distraction,” and followed that up with a column accusing the talker’s critics of “a calculated, organized Saul Alinsky–type community-organizing campaign to pressure and intimidate his advertisers into discontinuing their sponsorship of his show.” But this impulse to play the victim can’t distract from the damage that’s been done.
“This controversy will no doubt give Rush a temporary ratings lift, but it won’t be worth the damage that’s been caused in terms of loss of revenue and advertiser confidence,” says WTOP program director Laurie Cantillo, who previously directed Limbaugh’s flagship station, WABC. “It is perceived by many as an attack on young women who represent the holy grail for ratings. Women 25–54 is the prize demo for most advertisers. Rush’s remarks strike at the heart of the audience they’re trying to reach, hence the apology. This is an audience that’s already been in gradual decline on many right-wing radio stations, so Rush’s gaffe compounds the problem.”
That’s the reason this flap has resonated. After all, Rush says intentionally inflammatory things about “feminazis” and other groups every day. He is an entertainer driven primarily by a desire to get ratings. But because talk radio increasingly is the source of talking points for right-wing politicians, Rush has become a highly visible proxy for the conservative movement—a professionally polarizing political leader without any real responsibilities.
Rush’s attacks on the 30-year-old Pennsylvanian Sandra Fluke— after House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) deemed her an unworthy witness at a hearing about the new federal contraception insurance mandate that Republicans have tried to frame as a freedom of religion issue while Democrats have more successfully defined it as one of women’s health—has widened the disconnect between female voters and the GOP.
This closely parallels the problem right-wing talk radio has been wrestling with: a declining audience among women and young people. If demographics are destiny, this is a potentially existential problem.
“There’s been a lot of research done on women and talk radio and while women are keenly interested in issues and politics, women tend to reject the in-your-face conflict and combativeness of politics. That’s just not how women are wired,” says Cantillo. “We prefer more civil discourse on the issues. And that’s why all news and talk programming that’s more even-handed are gaining popularity.”
While Rush is still a giant of the talk-radio industry, there are signs of erosion. Right-wing talk-radio ratings have been declining, at least in part because of PPMs, a new, more accurate way of measuring listenership. In Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis, local talk-radio stations outperform the station that airs Rush and his national conservative-talk cohort. In San Diego, Philadelphia, and Washington, the local NPR station outranks the Rush affiliates.
Moreover, the Clear Channel radio empire is no longer run solely by the conservative San Antonio–based Mays family—it was sold to Bain Capital and Thomas H. Lee partners in 2008, and the CEO of its parent company is now Bob Pittman, the man who gave the world MTV.
In what might be another ominous sign for Rush & Co., Mike Huckabee will be starting a nationally syndicated radio show in April for the Cumulus network, which could be positioned to displace Rush in some markets. A former preacher, governor, and presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee is highly conservative, but he is also unfailingly civil.
There is an irony in the spot Rush has put himself. His career first took off when he was hired as a replacement for the professionally offensive Morton Downey Jr. at Sacramento’s KFBK. “Rush was hired because he was passionate but polite—a nice Midwest guy. The agreement was that he would not be rude or cruel,” says Valerie Geller, his former program director at WABC, director of Geller Media International and author of Beyond Powerful Radio.
“Focus groups would always say that they might not agree with what Rush says, but he’s fun to listen to,” Geller says, “but this is incredibly polarizing and divisive and mean-spirited. That’s what we’ve been talking about in the radio industry. It doesn’t seem like the Rush we once knew.”
The rise of social media is the other game changer that is forcing an abrupt evolution in talk radio. Grassroots movements can emerge overnight, calling on advertisers to abandon polarizing shock jocks who have been able to attract narrow but intense niche audiences and get them addicted to division. Now advertisers who are paying a premium for the privilege of advertising with the iconic Rush might find that they can save money and save themselves from consumer criticism at the same time.
This story is still unfolding, but once major advertisers leave they rarely come back. Money is more powerful than moral outrage in the mind of talk-radio professionals. Their polarizing politics is part of a business plan—and little more, despite what listeners are told and sold. If the business model no longer works as well as it once did, adjustments will need to be made eventually because the biological rules of adapt, migrate, or die still apply. “One general manager said to me recently, ‘Angry political rhetoric on both sides is just so played out,’” says Cantillo. “So programmers and managers are looking for smarter alternatives that will appeal to the younger listeners and will be safe, effective investments for advertisers.”
In the meantime, the rush to the exits continues.