Rush Limbaugh made the right-wing talk-radio industry, and he just might break it.
Because now the fallout from the “slut” slurs against Sandra Fluke is extending to the entire political shock-jock genre.
Premiere Networks, which distributes Limbaugh as well as a host of other right-wing talkers, sent an email out to its affiliates early Friday listing 98 large corporations that have requested their ads appear only on “programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial (for example, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity).”
This is big. According to the radio-industry website Radio-Info.com, which first posted excerpts of the Premiere memo, among the 98 companies that have decided to no longer sponsor these programs are “carmakers (Ford, GM, Toyota), insurance companies (Allstate, Geico, Prudential, State Farm), and restaurants (McDonald’s, Subway).” Together, these talk-radio advertising staples represent millions of dollars in revenue.
Valerie Geller, an industry insider and author of Beyond Powerful Radio, confirmed the trend. “I have talked with several reps who report that they’re having conversations with their clients, who are asking not to be associated with specifically polarizing controversial hosts, particularly if those hosts are ‘mean-spirited.’ While most products and services offered on these shows have strong competitors, and enjoy purchasing the exposure that many of these shows and hosts can offer, they do not wish to be ‘tarred’ with the brush of anger, or endure customer anger, or, worse, product boycotts.”
There are already tangible signs that the three dozen national and local advertisers that have pulled their ads from The Rush Limbaugh Show are having a financial impact.
For example, the ads that ran on Limbaugh’s WABC show in New York on Thursday consisted primarily of public-service announcements. Among the few actual advertisements were spots from the Mitt Romney–associated super PAC Restore Our Future (featuring negative attacks on Newt), Lear Capital, and the conservative Hillsdale College. Media Matters has been monitoring national trends along the same lines. When PSAs for nonprofit organizations like Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the United Negro College Fund run in place of actual advertisements on radio, it means the show starts losing money for the local station. And make no mistake, money is the only barometer of success the industry ultimately cares about.
Limbaugh helped prove that right-wing talk radio could be big business—promoting the idea that only conscious conservative bias could balance the unconscious liberal bias of what was termed the “mainstream media.” In the fragmented media environment that emerged after the heyday of the “big three” national TV networks, narrow but intense niche audiences provided the most reliable listeners and viewers and the highest comparative ratings. Limbaugh’s outsize talent helped spawn scores of imitators—but none as successful, and some strikingly unsuccessful. Attempts to create left-wing talk-radio corollaries proved no less offensive but far less popular, like the little-lamented Air America.
But this latest controversy comes at a particularly difficult time for right-wing talk radio. They are playing to a (sometimes literally) dying demographic. Rush & Co. rate best among old, white males. They have been steadily losing women and young listeners, who are alienated by the angry, negative, obsessive approach to political conservations. Add to that the fact that women ages 24–55 are the prize advertising demographic, and you have a perfect storm emerging after Limbaugh’s Sandra Fluke comments.
As pressure grows for advertisers and radio stations to drop Rush & Co., there will be much talk about the dangers of censorship, with allies talking about a left-wing “jihad” against Rush (language his brother David Limbaugh has already used).
But the irony is that the same market forces that right-wing talk-radio hosts champion are helping to seal their fate. Advertisers are abandoning the shows because they no longer want to be associated with the hyperpartisan—and occasionally hateful—rhetoric. They are finally drawing a line because consumers are starting to take a stand.
An additional irony: just as the technology-driven fragmentation of the landscape allowed partisan media to proliferate, a new technological development is providing the tools to take it down. Social media is making it possible to create a grassroots movement very quickly, voicing grievances very quickly and getting heard at the top of corporate headquarters.
“In the past, a letter, petition, or phone campaign took a few days to put together and longer to execute,” says Valerie Geller. “But now customers [listeners] can instantly rally using Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging to make their displeasure with a client, product, or service known immediately. These movements can happen fast.”
It is true that these efforts can be “astroturfed”—artificially created by activists with a specific ax to grind—but if they genuinely catch on, it is because they tap into broad sentiment.
Will this bombshell announcement by Premiere—and the decreased revenue from right-wing talk radio—provoke a change in the culture of hyperpartisan talk? It’s certainly possible—after all, they will adjust their approach to follow the money. There is no deeper political principle at stake.
It’s been interesting to see Limbaugh’s allies try to defend him indirectly over the past few days, pointing out (rightly) that the left does not cry foul when liberal political entertainers use derogatory terms about conservative women in politics.
But the left-wing talkers being condemned are actually following a model that Rush & Co created. Complaining about the escalation on the other side while ignoring the ugliness from your ideological allies is the larger problem, and it goes beyond hypocrisy. The only way we are going to stop this cycle of incitement is if we try to apply equal standards to both sides of the aisle. It’s not a complicated concept—it’s nothing more than the golden rule we learned in nursery school: treat others as you would like to be treated. And as political commentators like the radio pioneer Will Rogers once taught us, we can make serious points using satire, humor that is not designed to divide and destroy.
When big money starts shifting, it is a sign of a deeper tide that is difficult to undo, even if you are an industry icon like Rush Limbaugh. It is a sign that the times are changing. Let’s hope that what emerges is an evolution of the industry, away from stupid, predictable, and sometimes hateful hyperpartisanship and toward something a little smarter and more civil.