I don’t like Rush Limbaugh, both from a political standpoint and from an entertainment standpoint. I don’t understand what the appeal of that show and living with that constant level of ire towards everything around you is. But that is not what this column is about. Reveling in a human being’s death is gross, even if it is the death of a human being you think is gross.
Let’s instead examine the good that Rush Limbaugh did for sports talk radio. You read that right. Not news talk, but sports talk.
This won’t be a rehashing of his Donovan McNabb take from his three hilariously awkward weeks on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. That is a moment forever catalogued in history alongside the fact that after Limbaugh said that the media only thought Donovan McNabb was good because he was black, McNabb and the Eagles went on to win 13 of their next 15 and secure an NFC title.
Instead, let’s rewind all the way back to 1987 when Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine. Radio stations no longer had to provide free air time for the community to respond to a host’s controversial opinions and Rush Limbaugh bloomed into his final form: shameless, unencumbered provocateur.
So this is an important part to add. Rush Limbaugh, despite having some abhorrent opinions on women and anyone with skin browner than an albino alligator, was really really good at broadcasting. He knew how to command the airwaves and entertain his audience. They didn’t know what they wanted until Rush gave it to them, and they responded with blind loyalty that translated into book sales, sold out speaking tours, and most importantly, monster ratings for the stations that carried his show. Monster ratings usually lead to revenue, and if you can reliably generate significant revenue, everyone is going to try and figure out how to do more of whatever it is you do.
But again, Rush Limbaugh was unusually good at talk radio. Programmers around the country could try their damndest to find someone that could copy what it is Rush did, but the result was usually some local politician or newspaper columnist that, at best, could deliver a single compelling segment.
Talk radio programmers have been stuck in this space for decades. Before I put my head down and focused on sports, I gave talk radio a whirl. I thought it would be a natural transition from a rock radio morning show and when I looked at Raleigh, North Carolina’s landscape of clones of Rush Limbaugh clones, I thought there might be an opportunity to succeed doing the exact opposite. I wasn’t going to be a liberal version of those kinds of shows. I was going to come in everyday and just laugh at the absurdity of politics and daily life. Me and my crew would operate from a place of “none of us know anything so let’s not take any of this seriously” instead of “I’m the only one you can trust to get you through this horrible moment in our nation’s history”.
I lasted six months before I became depressed and frustrated and decided I’d rather be unemployed than try to work with a program director who’s advice for me was “use Rush Limbaugh as show prep” or bookers that didn’t understand why I didn’t want to talk to the author of a book called Barack Hussein Obama, The Unauthorized Diary of a Muslim President (a real book by the way).
By relying on nothing but copycats of a single show to occupy every single prime day part, news talk program directors created a format that was exclusively for the angriest, oldest audience in the country. It was profitable. That can’t be denied. But realistically, how smart is it to build your empire on people that are ten years from death?
So, let’s backup a bit, because like I said, “who sounds like a local Rush?” has been the blueprint for hiring news talk hosts for more than 30 years at this point. All of that anger, that total void of variety created an opportunity. Sure, WFAN signed on as the nation’s first full-time sports talk station while Rush Limbaugh was still a local afternoon drive host in Sacramento. As the format was spreading around the country though, finding frequencies not only in Major League cities but also in the Albuquerques and Zanesvilles, the Rushification of news talk radio was in its heyday. And when the company that was then known as Clear Channel started flipping underperforming rock, AC, and CHR stations to talk and branding them all “Rush Radio,” the company then called CBS Radio was busy flipping rock and alternative stations to FM sports talk outlets.
Every time angry old white guy radio made advances, there was sports talk to build its own audience by picking up the guys that were left behind. The people that wanted to be stimulated with stories and conversation on their drives to and from work had their alternative. The format that appealed to the population that wasn’t operating from a place of constant fear had the audience it needed to thrive and grow.
Okay, let’s bring it back to the 2020s. Look at the national sports talk landscape. There is a diversity of backgrounds, a diversity of styles, and a diversity of content. Seriously, put on Colin Cowherd and then put on Pat McAfee. Those guys have the same job title, but their deliveries and styles couldn’t be more different. Put on Clay Travis and then flip over to Keyshawn, JWill, and Zubin. Those shows aren’t even talking to the same person, yet they exist in the same format.
Now let’s do the same thing with news talk radio. Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Dan Bongino, and Dennis Prager are all doing the same show, talking to the same guy about the same topics. Did you miss something Glenn Beck said this morning? Don’t worry. Sean Hannity will say the same thing later this afternoon.
On the local level, if you hear audio from a national show in the sports format it is because local hosts want to rip the national host that said something about the home town team that proves he is out of touch. If you hear audio from a national show during a local show in the news talk format, it is because the local host is worshiping his idol.
The politics that Rush Limbaugh embraced demanded sycophancy within the format. He wasn’t just conservative. He wasn’t just a Republican. Rush Limbaugh dared his detractors to disagree with him and then weaponized their disagreement with terms like “feminazis” and “liberal media”.
If you are capable of building a brand that is bigger than the format or even the medium, that’s brilliant. It turns you, and you alone, into the format. That is awesome for you. It’s not so awesome for the format though.
As a programmer, the job is to get the very most out of your talent. It is to help them get to a place where their show sounds exactly like the version that exists in their head. You throw out the ideas of being a “local Cowherd” and instead find and nurture the thing that makes a host distinctly themselves. Coach your hosts into personalities that listeners are invested in. That is how you create interesting radio.
White guys turn 55 and decide to get really involved with their HOA everyday, so there will always be an audience for news talk…at least I think there will be. As long as that format stays as angry as it has been for more than 30 years, as long as every program director just rolls out Rush fanboy after Rush fanboy during drive times, the format won’t have personalities that listeners are invested in. They will have to rely on those listeners staying mad and bitter constantly. And sports talk radio will be there serving more interesting and fun content and finding an audience loyal to its hosts and advertisers in the millions of people that news talk left behind.