The Secret to Limbaugh’s Success Is Giving It Away + Consolidation

Clear Channel, the Republican Party and Rush himself would have you believe that the key to his success in radio is due to the popularity of his idiosyncratic conservative viewpoint. But how did he get there? The same way as your friendly corner drug dealer — he gave it away for free.

This is something that folks who’ve watched the radio industry since the 90s know, and I blogged about six years ago:

Rush’s popularity rose in the early 90s at the same time that the fortunes of many radio stations was declining, especially small AM stations. At about the same time Premiere radio networks saw an opportunity and started selling these stations talk programming like Rush and Dr. Laura that was cheaper than these stations even attempting to do their own programming. For its part, Premiere could offer cheap rates to stations because they could leverage the nationwide coverage with their advertisers.

To start with, stations didn’t sign on to carrying Rush because he was so popular and entertaining. No, simply his program was long, relatively consistent and cheap, cheap, cheap.

Media blogger and former Inside Radio contributor Bill Mann reminds us all of this fact with a piece at the Huffington Post, now that Limbaugh’s back in the news as the apparent leader of the Republican party. Mann writes,

Here’s how a barter deal works: To launch the show, Limbaugh’s syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks — the same folks who syndicate wingnut du jour Glen Beck — gave Limbaugh’s three hours away — that’s right, no cash — to local radio stations, mostly in medium and smaller markets, back in the early 1990’s.

So, a local talk station got Rush’s show for zilch. In exchange, Premiere took for itself much of the local station’s available advertising time (roughly 15 minutes an hour) and packed the show with national ads it had already pre-sold.

He adds that his sources indicate that many small market stations are still paying nothing or next-to-nothing to air old Rushy.

The point that Mann doesn’t get to is the close relationship between ownership and political programming. It’s all the more relevant now while Limbaugh and his imitators keep crying wolf about the red herring of highly improbably revival of the Fairness Doctrine. I’ve always thought it unfortunate that many liberals and progressives have pinned hopes on resuscitating the Doctrine as a way to stem the tide of right-wing hate broadcasting. That’s because the Doctrine almost never worked the way they’d hope it would, mostly being used by political or commercial rivals to get at each other.

More importantly, while the rise of Limbaugh was certainly helped along by the absence of the Fairness Doctrine, the most potent force was the 1996 Telecom Act which removed the national radio ownership cap. That allowed Jacor Broadcasting to buy up an unprecedented 169 stations (sound quaint now, doesn’t it) before the ink on the Act was dry. Then a year later Jacor bought Rush’s syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks. Not long after that Jacor was acquired by Clear Channel, which would go on to own a peak of over 1200 stations.

While not every Limbaugh station was or is owned by Clear Channel, a very significant majority are, especially in major markets. While Clear Channel has made tentative steps into the liberal/progressive radio programming arena, by and large its overwhelming conservative bent has reflected the politics of its owners and founders.

Put simply: it’s the ownership, stupid.

Clever marketing (who can argue with free) taking advantage of the AM band’s poor fortunes in the early 90s combined with rapid consolidation created the Rush Limbaugh machine we know today. If Jacor and Clear Channel’s management had a liberal political bent, would Rush be the giant he is now? Hard to say, since not too many liberals head up companies like Clear Channel. But what we can’t lose sight of is the fact that liberals didn’t own Clear Channel, and the path to talk radio dominance was bought and paid for, just like payola, only technically legal.

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