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Rush Limbaugh: Radio Stuck With Me, And I'm Sticking With Radio (08/21/06)


By Joe Howard, Editor-In-Chief

Coming up on 20 years as host of the nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh Show currently heard on over 600 affiliates, the man widely accepted as the standard-bearer for conservative talk is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, Limbaugh is just as energized today as he was when he was hosting a local show on KFBK in Sacramento back in 1988, right around the time his show went national.

With that move, Limbaugh not only kicked open the door for syndicated daytime radio, but provided a shot in the arm to the AM radio band. This year, he tops the Radio Ink Readers' Choice category for Political Talk. And while he's grateful for the recognition, Limbaugh is more grateful to the radio community that has stood by him through some challenging times, and he's committed to repaying that loyalty by sticking with radio.



Radio Ink: Your show is obviously still reaching people, but at this point you could have your pick of less-demanding jobs, perhaps as a guest on other programs, or even the speaker circuit. Why do you still choose to invest the time in a daily radio show?
Rush Limbaugh
: I just love it. The speaking circuit doesn't appeal to me at all. I do that begrudgingly. I have no desire to be a guest on television shows that are becoming more inane and predictable and plentiful. I reach a larger audience on my radio show than all those cable shows combined. The bottom line is I just love doing this. If I take a vacation for a week, I'm ready to get back, I feel out of sorts. I'm very lucky, I've grown up able to do something that is my passion and my love. I don't even consider it work. I love doing every aspect of it.

RI: When you started, there wasn't the 24-hour news cycle or cable, or the more progressive voices that are out there now. How have you had to change your show from when you started?
RL
: At the risk of being misunderstood, I think I am one of the figures responsible for this massive change. You're right, in 1988 when I started, we had the three networks and CNN, and that was it. One of the reasons my show took off was that it was the first national show that validated the opinions of millions of Americans whose views were not represented accurately or fairly in the mainstream media. My success - as success does in any business - spawns others who want to get in on it. We had to go out and find new advertisers - conventional network radio advertisers wouldn't buy the program because it was controversial. We had to create a whole new bunch of advertisers, people who'd never been on radio before, so that expanded the business pie.

The primary way my program has changed is that I used to prep it on three newspapers, back when there was no Internet. But now, I have a couple of people who help me search the 'Net every day as part of my research, and I've got an executive assistant who does the audio/video that I use for audio sound bites on the radio show. Having so much more information that's accessible and reachable is the main change.

Since I started mine, I've never listened to another talk show. I don't react to others out there, or what they may be doing. My show starts at noon, so it's not the first time people are hearing the information I have. I never wonder what another talk show host is going to try to do. I don't look at them all as trying to catch me; I look at them as reacting to me. I look at them as having me through their windshield, and they're in my rearview mirror, so why react to them?

RI: Does it make your job harder when people call in challenging you with what they heard some other talk host said?
RL
: No. Here's the best way to answer this question. Understand my humility when I say this: There is nobody else on radio to me. I know there are other people doing it - but there aren't. It's a mindset that I bring into the studio with me every day. I tell myself my audience hasn't heard what I'm going to say until they've heard me say it. I don't care what other noise is out there.

Granted, there is a lot of noise, a lot of competition, and you have to do things to stand out from it. That's where some of the showbiz stuff comes in, some of the entertainment. But my program is about core beliefs, honesty, and reacting to news events and cultural items using that core belief basis as my mechanism. That doesn't change. I am who I am. I never have stuck my finger in the air and moistened it to see which way the wind is blowing, or find out what people want me to say and then say that. I'm not a politician trying to get votes; I'm a businessman trying to deliver the largest audience I can and hold it for as long as I can, so that we can charge confiscatory advertising rates of our sponsors, and so that they can benefit from paying them. This is really as much a business to me as it is a performance; one couldn't happen without the other. There aren't any new opinions; there was conservatism before I came along, there was liberalism long before I came along.

RI: Although you aren't listening to it, do you think there's something missing in Talk radio?
RL
: What there's a shortage of is talented broadcasters. When I started in '88, some of the finest minds in this business wished me well, but said syndication in the daytime didn't have a chance. Radio is local, local, local. Now look what's happening. Everybody wants syndicated programming. So, do you go out and get somebody who doesn't have a whole lot of broadcast experience and throw them out there? Get him on 20 stations and call him national, then start buying ads in magazines? Broadcasting is a skill, it requires a lot of experience. I remember back in the early days when broadcasters went out and put psychiatrists on the air and started taking calls about peoples' sex problems. I always maintained that if you put a real broadcaster up against them, in time even the nature of those sex psychiatry shows can be beaten. I think it is still the case today.

RI: Do you think people in local radio who want to go national are trying to do shows that a network will want, instead of doing a good local show? Since shows like yours can make the networks money, are they asking, “Where can I find the next one?”
RL
: I don't know what the local guys are doing because I don't listen. All I can do is tell you what my attitude was when I was local in Sacramento. I wasn't trying to impress anybody but the audience. I was just trying to get the audience to listen to the program so that management would realize that my employment was worthwhile, and so that I might get a raise. I also started endorsing certain businesses and products so I could make myself part of the revenue stream at the radio station, to buy myself some ratings insurance. When I was doing that show for the first three years, it was Sacramento, Sacramento, Sacramento. I had no dream of going national because the only way to do that was to do it at night, and there was no money at night. It was a tempting thing to do, but I was focused.

If you're asking what advice I would give to somebody in a local market: Be the best you can in that market and get noticed. The fastest way to get syndicated is to kick ass in a local market and get yourself noticed.

There are rumblings in the market that there is too much syndication, we need to get back the local. These are cycles that the business goes through. I think the nature of your question indicates the problem: Everybody in the world is syndicated now. Everybody has a national show, but I don't know if there is money to support that many national shows at a profit level that will make it worthwhile. You know what will cause it to shake out? Content, content, content. Talent will always be the determining factor. You can take your focus group research and throw it out the window - the host has the instincts to connect with the audience, to understand what is important, and to bring passion to whatever he or she is talking about. If people want to listen to it, they'll go wherever it is to find it - AM, FM, two tin cans in a string, satellite, what have you.

RI: How has the radio industry reacted as you've gone though your recent legal issues?
RL
: Actually, it's been one of the most gratifying aspects of my life. I've put work partners and associates through some pretty stiff challenges, and the affiliate radio stations, over 600 of them who carry the program, all stuck by. We didn't lose an affiliate, we didn't lose a sponsor. It was a really strong vote of confidence and support. Since I got into this business - when I was 16, in 1967 - I've always believed that it's not the personality who makes a radio station. It takes a whole radio station, a whole culture, and a dedication to professionalism to allow a platform for a personality to succeed. I don't think my debt will ever be paid to the early stations that carried the program. They took a huge risk when it was said it couldn't be profitable, it couldn't get enough conventional advertisers, the programming is too controversial. But they still took the risk. Many people would not have been supportive through some of the challenges I've put them through. I'm really grateful and thankful for it, and it's something I will never forget. I appreciate the opportunity to say that again here in your magazine.

RI: Since you won in the Political Talk category, let's talk politics. We're coming up on an election year where there are no real heir apparents. What is your outlook for the next presidential election? What do both parties need to look for in a candidate?
RL
: The Republicans are going through a bit of an identity crisis right now; their past has always been predicated on just how loyally conservative they stayed from their campaign to their governing. The House Republicans are in trouble because they campaigned as very strong conservatives on a bunch of core conservative principles, and they have abandoned them - like the high spending. It's not entirely their fault because the president himself is not an elected conservative leader. He's an elected Republican president, but he is not leading a conservative movement in the way that Ronald Reagan did.

It's even worse in the Senate. It appears to me that the frontrunners the McCains and the Giulianis are not conservative Republicans; they are Republicans. They are conservative on some things, but they are not going to lead conservative movements. They're going to be Republicans on some things, conservative on the others, moderate, liberal on others, and that will cause a problem at nomination time as far as the base is concerned. They'll be very confused as to who to support, and I think it might be damaging to the Republican Party. For some reason, when you live in Washington long enough, you get the idea the country is like it is in Washington — very liberal culturally and socially. That's where they live, and that's where they want to be accepted, but it ain't red state America. It's not flyover country, and I think that they're losing touch.

The Democrats have their own problem. They're being run by an increasingly lunatic, kook fringe base on the Internet logisphere. I can't believe what's happening to Joe Lieberman; he was their vice presidential nominee six years ago, and they're trying to run him out of the Senate and out of the party! It looks like Hilary has it battened down she's collected and raised most of the money. I know there are other hopefuls that want the presidential nomination, but it looks like she's gonna get it if she wants it. If it came down to McCain or Giuliani vs. Hilary, I don't think there is any contest. It has nothing to do with Hilary's being a woman; I just don't think she's likable. She's very polarizing - she'd be a good talk show host - but she creates as much anger as love, and she might redefine what negative turnout is. In terms of what the party should look for in candidates, that's up to them, whatever they think that they need to do to win. I have a tough enough time figuring out what I need to do everyday to win, instead of advising these clowns.

RI: What is your take on U.S. involvement in the ongoing Middle East crisis?
RL
: The transformation of the Middle East is under way. It has been for a while, with Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Israel is serious about wiping out Hezbollah. For 30 or 40 years we've tried it the diplomatic way. We've tried it the UN way. We've tried it the Madeline Albright way, with cease fires, sustainable cease fires, peace resolutions. We haven't had peace. We haven't had anything close to peace. If you look at world history, peace does not come from negotiations, peace does not come from doctors, nurses, and clean water; peace doesn't come from the United Nations, and it doesn't come from diplomacy. Peace is the residue of victory - when one of these sides wipes out the other is when there will be peace. You've got 5 million Israelis/Jews surrounded by the total population of the Arab nation, 300 million, 500 million people. The people in the 300 to 500 group are out there strapping bombs on their kids and sending them into Israel to blow them up, killing their kids, killing Israelis.

You can't negotiate with these people. The idea of a cease fire or a peace resolution with a terrorist organization is intellectually absurd. I think this administration understands it; Condoleezza Rice has been fantastic when she's met with these groups. She's refused to put a timetable on Israel. She's said that we're for peace and for a cease fire, but we're not going back to the status quo. That is pretty strong language, even for a diplomat. Not going back to status quo means we're not going to have a terrorist group living side by side with cease fire after cease fire after cease fire. They just ramp up during a cease fire, and come back with even more powerful weapons. This is one of the areas where I am so supportive of the president. At some point, if we declare a war on terror, we're going to have to wage it, and we're going to have to win it. It's gotten to a point now, if this is botched, the terrorists will be emboldened and enamored with their so-called success. It's a very serious moment.

While all this is going on, the drive-by media is reporting through the old 30-year prism: Bush is a failure diplomatically. I read that today. Rice totally failed in her mission because they didn't get a cease fire. They don't even see what is right in front of them! That's another reason why my program is so successful: When you turn on CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, or read the Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, US News, or any local newspaper or local television station, with rare exception, the news is identical. It's stunning. The focus is so narrow. Their action line now is the politics of every event as it affects the Bush administration. Of course, the action line is, “We gotta kill Bush, we gotta end this administration, we gotta destroy it, we want a Democrat administration back in power, we hate Bush, blah, blah, blah.”

So they look at the Middle East, and say, “There is no cease fire; Bush failed.” They don't see the massive transformation going on right around them. Instinctively over the past 17 or 18 years people understand that there's been a major shift in news; they see that there is a definite agenda in most of the mainstream media. Why shouldn't there be? These are thinking human beings. To expect them not to have an interest in the outcome of events is absurd. The offending thing is is that they profess to have no concern and no interest in the outcome of events, while they are secretly, visibly, openly trying to secure the outcome they want.

RI: Don't people like listening to somebody who's polarizing, one way or the other?
RL
: It's about passion. I don't think anybody wants to listen to a moderate. Who wants to listen to a hand wringer? “Well, I'm not sure about that. I can see one side, but I can see the other side too.” That's never worked anywhere. The best advice I ever got was when I went to Sacramento and the consultant said, “We want controversy, and we will back you to the hilt as long as you believe what you are saying. If you're just inventing things to make people mad, this isn't the place for you. If you can back up what you are saying and believe it and have a real reason for it, that's fine.”

That was a great piece of advice, and I've always relied on it. There's a big difference between that and some blowhard trying to say “f***” on the radio without saying “f***.” Plenty of people in radio are trying to do that, but that doesn't take any talent. Talent will rise to the top if it's given a chance to be exposed on a consistent basis.

RI: Is there a next big thing on the horizon, or something that is missing? What is the radio industry screaming for?
RL
: I don't know. Maybe delivery systems, portability, technological advancement. If I were running a radio station, I'd want the best voices, the best talent that I could get. I don't think anything is going to replace that. People ask me if I'm going to go to satellite. Why? The whole nation is my audience on terrestrial radio. These radio stations have made me who I am. I'm not going to cannibalize them. I'd have to do a whole separate show that was unavailable anywhere else. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I think it all comes back to the talent on the air, rather than some new gimmick. What's new about AM radio? There was a story in the LA Times recently, and they couldn't believe the success of AM radio all over America. Strangely, this story did not mention me, but nevertheless, AM radio was thought to be dead 18 years ago, and there's no new gimmick that kept it alive, just good talent.


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