About 99% of those reading this have long since formed their opinion of Rush Limbaugh. His death this morning, and reading some early reactions, convince me that I might be one of only a handful of people with a nuanced, mixed opinion of the man and his legacy.
So I come neither to canonize Rush nor bury him. But I am NOT exaggerating when I say he was the most influential person in the last fifty years in an industry that I have devoted most of my professional career to.
Rush Limbaugh was Trump before Trump. A big-talking, bombastic figure who exaggerated, bloviated and irritated. But people listened. Those who loved him listened. Those who hated him listened. He was all of these things, good and bad, but one thing he NEVER was—was boring.
When he was gaining a big audience in the late 80’s, I was graduating college and began working full-time at a station in Danville-Virginia. It was a conservative area—but steeped with southern politeness. Rush’s parodies and harsh language was deemed too shocking for the local audience, based on the reaction of the sales people at our station who were marketing the show. Our station was the first in the market to carry Rush. That initial reaction quickly melted away and 12-3pm quickly became our most lucrative time of the day to sell.
This is sort of “inside baseball” for those of us in radio, but Rush Limbaugh changed the way AM Radio was marketed and sold. AM was dead before his show. Major markets had all but abandoned it. But Rush and his team put together a unique network of very small stations in very small markets. Then his talent took over. Quickly those stations got a little bigger. Those markets got a little bigger. And within a decade, he had more radio listeners than any other person on the planet. He quickly eclipsed Larry King.
When I heard about Rush Limbaugh I envisioned a conservative commentator who had a radio show. When I actually HEARD Limbaugh, I instantly realized he was a radio guy who happened to be a conservative commenter. Again—more inside baseball—but Rush’s diction, pacing, delivery and other voice attributes were near-perfect. You cannot live in the radio business and not envy the pipes. He had them.
Before the emergence of Rush’s radio show, you had a hard time finding conservative mores represented in mainstream culture. The driving moral force behind most television, movie and other art was what left-wing values were more treasured. This was rarely overt, but popular culture clearly reflected a left-of-center perspective. Rush immediately filled a void, speaking to people who sometimes felt that society at large didn’t regard them fondly. Go ahead. Call them dumb ‘ol rednecks if you like. But they tuned in. And the number quickly suggested that other demographics were tuning in.
Rush’s format was completely different. It was not listener/caller-dominated. Most of the content came from HIM. HE was the selling point—not the callers. Now it takes a hell of a personality to carry something like that but he did. For more than thirty years. Trust me when I tell you that carrying a three-hour live broadcast largely on extemporaneous speaking is a chore!
The empire he was able to build in such a short time was remarkable. Limbaugh gave conservatives a national stage with his radio show. I said it at the time and I will say it again—Rush Limbaugh was primarily responsible for the unprecedented Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. He essentially ushered in a new age of politics. Again, you can disagree with the politics, but you cannot deny the impact.
A few years later, Roger Ailes witnessed Rush’s popularity and saw a chance to market to that audience on the television side. The results speak for themselves. Fox News (like them or not) has become a cultural force.
One of the mainstream media’s biggest issues with Rush was the same issues they have with Fox News, right-wing bloggers, etc. They are proof that the old guard no longer has a monopoly on the flow of information. This is the information age. Information is power. In democratizing political information, Rush will forever be reviled by those who once controlled it.
I most certainly did not always agree with Rush and I most certainly was not a fan of his style. To be honest, he was a loudmouthed jerk most of the time. I realize, though, that I was not his target audience. Controversy sells. Volume sells. Drama sells. Rush’s bombastic style and finger-pointing penchant was way too over the top for my tastes. But beneath the bluster, the man knew his stuff. Yes, you had to sit through some eye-roll moments, but there was substance there. He correctly pointed out that the vanguard of left-guided movements like Feminism and Environmentalism were primarily the movement’s most partisan elements. They were indignant about that. Partly because he made it personal. But mostly because he was 100% correct.
And to a lot of conservatives in the early 90’s, it was a welcome break from the norm. Politically, the “norm” at the time was to have Ted Kennedy say something awful about you on the Senate floor—and that would be the only clip the newscast showed. No rebuttal. With Rush giving a voice of dissent, it amplified others that were being ignored. Most notably, a young firebrand Congressman from Georgia named Newt Gingrich.
I am not going to bother checking Twitter today. I’ve seen what some of the more unhinged leftists said about Rush when he was alive. I can only imagine what they’re saying today so I will make sure that I keep it at that. There are a few entities that seem to draw out the inner demon on the left—to make them say things that would make Charlie Manson wince. Brett Kavanaugh was one of them. But Rush Limbaugh was the Godfather. The idea of equating “disagreement” with “hatred” wasn’t born with Rush, but it applied right up until his death. And sadly, well beyond it.
I’m sure a lot of people will say Rush was the precursor to a coarsening of our political and social debates. There is some merit to that. Certainly things have only gotten more pronounced in those areas over the past thirty years. And you could say that they reached their apex with the election of Donald Trump. Rush was the first of the modern-day conservatives to fire back at people like James Carville—whose political rhetoric and attacks too often went unchallenged. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far, but what is worse? A society where one side is able to say most anything about the other—-or one where that other side has a chance to say something back?
Rush Limbaugh was a giant in the field of radio and in American broadcasting. He pointed out thirty years ago that the American left was dominating discussion and he decided to do something about it. He did. Whether you think that is a good thing or a bad thing depends mostly on where you reside on the political spectrum.
As someone who was an indirect beneficiary of his essentially saving AM radio in the nineties, I will tip my cap. As someone who has misgivings about monopolies on speech and opinions, I will nod my head. But as someone who values basic manners, I will give a thumbs-down.
We now return you to your regular social media, where the opinions will be much less cerebral and nuanced. 🙂