Friday, August 1, 2003

In Rush Limbaugh's world, he's always right

Whether you agree or disagree with him, the syndicated host has changed political discourse and radio during the past 15 years.

By Steve Carney, Special to The Los Angeles Times

Fifteen years ago today, the nation first heard from "America's truth detector," the man "with talent on loan from God." And American political discourse -- not to mention radio -- has never been the same.

Rush Limbaugh
(source: Premiere Radio Networks)
Rush Limbaugh took his local Sacramento program, which in four years had become a ratings juggernaut, and syndicated it to 56 stations nationwide on Aug. 1, 1988. Since then, the talk-radio format has gone from curiosity to influential force in broadcasting and politics, and now the conservative host airs on about 600 stations, including locally on KFI-AM (640), where he's heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. His weekly audience of about 20 million listeners is the largest in radio, according to his syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks.

"I've wanted to be in radio since I was 12, and my whole life I thought I would end up being the most successful at it," Limbaugh said, though at that age he wasn't exactly sure how that ambition would play out.

He's won numerous industry awards -- the National Assn. of Broadcasters has named him "Syndicated Radio Personality of the Year" three times -- and also won credit from the new majority for his partisan cheerleading when Newt Gingrich led the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, after 40 years of Democratic control.

"I believe that if Rush Limbaugh were a liberal, he'd be just as successful," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, the trade journal of the talk-radio industry.

"He's enormously talented. He's got a great voice. He also has a tremendous aptitude for explaining abstract political subjects in an understandable way. He's a very original thinker. And he's funny -- he's a very entertaining guy."

Limbaugh says his show combines "serious discussion of the issues with irreverent, off-the-wall humor, with credibility on both sides." He likened it to Ted Koppel opening "Nightline" with a monologue, or David Letterman or Jay Leno expounding on their political views.

"A good radio program is a performance," he said, and his boils down to "Here's who I am, here's what I believe, here's what I think you ought to believe." At the same time, "my objective here has always been to attract the largest audience I can. This is a business."

KFI was one of the first major-market stations to pick up Limbaugh's show, and the most frequent complaint about it "was that it's biased journalism," said David G. Hall, senior vice president of programming at Premiere and formerly KFI program director.

"Well," Hall said, "the answer to that is: It's not journalism at all, it's just a talk show."

On it, Limbaugh gives no quarter to those with whom he disagrees, whether they're "femi-Nazis," "environmental wackos" or anyone to the left of him politically.

"I think he's a brilliant propagandist for conservative and Republican issues," said Steve Rendall, senior analyst at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, the liberal media watchdog group, and co-author of "The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error," which challenges some of the assertions Limbaugh has made on his show.

Rendall said Limbaugh's authoritative tone appeals to fans, but he believes the host has fostered a divisive political climate of "us against them."

"Limbaugh is a major contributor to the name-calling and the degraded discourse that started on talk radio and has spread to cable news and elsewhere," he said. In that environment, "you can't disagree without being disagreeable."

Limbaugh's fan base of self-proclaimed "dittoheads" has often been described as a legion of "angry white males." But he said anyone calling him or his audience angry isn't listening to the show.

"There's no question I engender disagreement. There's no question people don't like me," said Limbaugh, 52. Those who are "challenged or threatened by my effectiveness, they're the ones who are mad. Listen to any feminist, listen to any environmentalist, listen to the antiwar crowd."

Instead of fire and brimstone, he unloads on his targets with derision and humor, such as referring to the former vice president as the robotic "Algore," or calling senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry "French-looking" and "reputedly a Vietnam War veteran." On Tuesday's show, he said a New York high school exclusively for gay and lesbian students seeking to avoid harassment would need a specialized math curriculum, "because they don't multiply."

When he turns the humor on himself, it's alternately self-aggrandizing -- when he's citing his God-lent talent, or saying he works "with half my brain tied behind my back, just to make it fair" -- and self-deprecating, as when he calls himself "a harmless little fuzzball."

Harmless? Not if you ask the Clintons, congressional Democrats, or competing hosts.

"He's certainly harmed my career," said Michael Jackson, the L.A. talk-radio institution whom some credit with inventing the format, and known for his longevity and civility during 30-plus years at KABC.

When Limbaugh came to KFI in March 1989, the station ranked 20th in the market, compared to KABC's third-place status, according to the Arbitron ratings service. By the end of 1991, Limbaugh had overtaken Jackson in the morning ratings, and in 1997 KABC bumped Jackson to the weekends, in its first of several attempts over the years to combat Limbaugh's dominance in the time slot. KFI has not trailed KABC since.

"I don't agree with his politics, but he has amazing style," Jackson said. "He's sufficiently bombastic and outspoken that even those who disagree with him enjoy disagreeing with him. And those that followed him are pale imitations."

But enough imitators have come along to populate a booming industry. According to Talkers, the country had about 125 talk-radio stations in 1987, the year before Limbaugh went national. Now the figure is closer to 1,200, or about one-tenth of all commercial radio stations in the United States.

"I wouldn't say it's totally Rush Limbaugh, but I'd say he's played a major role," Harrison said. "If you compare talk radio to rock 'n' roll, Rush Limbaugh was Elvis Presley."

Harrison said a number of factors laid the groundwork for the success of Limbaugh and talk radio. In the late '80s, AM stations were looking for a niche to stay in business, after losing music programming to their FM brethren. In addition, Harrison said many people felt disenfranchised by the mainstream media, and baby boomers who had grown up with radio were ready to listen to something besides music. Also, advances in telephone and satellite technology made national talk radio programs more technically feasible, and finally, the repeal of the Federal Communications Commission's Fairness Doctrine "allowed radio to be controversial."

In 1987, the year before Limbaugh's national rollout, the regulatory agency eliminated its rule requiring broadcasters to air opposing viewpoints on controversial subjects. Thus, hosts could say what they pleased without giving equal time for a rebuttal. And Limbaugh was ready to unleash talents he'd been honing since he was a 12-year-old in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

"I didn't like school. The guy on the radio sounded like he was having a blast; my day was arduous prison. I wanted to be that guy," Limbaugh said. So he spun records, pretending to be a disc jockey, "and my mother would dutifully listen."

He got a real radio job in his hometown at age 16, then bounced around in various stints as a DJ. He left radio for a while, starting in 1979, and worked for four years in the front office of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. Then he became a political commentator for KMBZ in Kansas City, leaving a year later for KFBK in Sacramento.

"This was my last shot at radio," he said, and he took it with no guests and few callers. "I wanted to find out if I could be the sole reason people would listen to a radio program."

Hall happened to start as a news reporter at KFBK the same week that Limbaugh debuted, in summer 1984. He remembers walking down the hallway and hearing a voice blaring from a speaker playing the station's broadcast.

"I stopped cold in my tracks. He was going on and on about Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. I thought, 'Oh, this guy's got a crackpot guest.' " But it was all Limbaugh.

"I was used to the older style of talk show, where there was the revolving door of guests, with a nice, moderated discussion," Hall said. Limbaugh's performance, on the other hand, "shocked everybody. It was impossible not to listen to."

After tripling his audience in Sacramento, Limbaugh moved to New York when his show went national. Now he broadcasts mainly from a studio near his home in Palm Beach, Fla., where he moved in 1997.

It looked as though his successful run on the air might end in October 2001, however, when he announced that a degenerative condition had caused him to go deaf. But cochlear implant surgery restored his hearing and "served to wake up my 16-year-old passion."

Although his contract, for a reported $285 million, runs until 2009, Limbaugh said he has no plan to leave the airwaves then. Indeed, he's branching out, signing on as a commentator for ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" beginning Sept. 4.

"I've always said I'm never going to retire until every American agrees with me," he said, apparently only half kidding. "When I get up in the morning for a week or two straight and I don't care what's in the news, if I lose my passion, then that's the time I'll move on."

Until then, Limbaugh said, "I'm doing what I love, I'm doing what I have always wanted to do, I'm doing it on my terms, and I've succeeded at it."

No comments:

Post a Comment