I got caught up in one of KSTP-AM’s constant rounds of staff reductions on April 4, 1987. I was 24, and very much in love with the idea of finding a career in a medium I’d discovered less than two years before, talk radio. Especially the conservative wing of it – as a newly-minted Reagan voter as of age 21, I had that newbie zeal that tries so, so very hard to make up for lack of experience and information. Speaking of inexperience and naivete, I was pretty new to and green in the world of big-market radio – especially to the process of trying to find a job in the field, without moving to Saint Cloud to play country western radio.
I thought I had a couple of leads, though; a station in Raleigh was interested in me even as I left the station. Others in Orlando, Waukegan, Fall River Massachusetts, Hammond Indiana, Cleveland and Santa Rosa California would come up in the next few months.
But one by miserable, painful one they all dried up, one after the other. A few changed formats. A few changed management.
But most of them, given a choice between paying a 24 year old kid $20-30K a year to work afternoons or evenings, or getting national-level talent for free via satellite, went with the new, cheap, national offering…
…by a fellow named Rush Limbaugh.
Gradually yet blazingly quickly, Limbaugh’s mid-day show ate up hundreds of jobs that might have gone to a kid like me – and prompted hundreds more struggling AM stations to flip formats, ditching country-western or polka or oldies for the new, newly deregulated field of conservative political talk.
And it brought an audience. And sponsors. And, almost against many stations’ wills, ratings and money.
I remember management at a couple of stations fairly visibly holding their noses and solemnly declaring “Limbaugh doesn’t reprsent this station’s entire point of view” out one side of their mouths, while eagerly cashing the bonus checks that his ratings, and those of his format-mates, brought them.
For twenty years, until the 2007 recession cut the guts out of the radio ad market, it was like a license to print money. I remember meeting an old friend from our time at KDWB who’d landed at KSTP. He was figuring out what he was going to spend a five-digit bonus check, over double what I’d ever earned in a year at that station even after adjusting for inflation, on. Even after the meltdown in rates, Limbaugh’s dominance and prosperity, and that of conservative talk, endured – or at least better than any other segment of entertainment radio other than sports and Spanish.
Rush Limbaugh didn’t dominate an industry. He created it – and saved the AM Radio band while he was at it. Matt Continetti points out that he was the right guy in the right place at the right technological, ideological and regulatory time:
It’s one thing to excel in your field. It’s another to create the field in which you excel. Conservative talk radio was local and niche before Limbaugh. He was the first to capitalize on regulatory and technological changes that allowed for national scale. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 freed affiliates to air controversial political opinions without inviting government scrutiny. As music programming migrated to the FM spectrum, AM bandwidth welcomed talk. Listener participation was also critical. “It was not until 1982,” writes Nicole Hemmer in Messengers of the Right, “that AT&T introduced the modern direct-dial toll-free calling system that national call-in shows use.”
Limbaugh made the most of these opportunities. And he contributed stylistic innovations of his own. He treated politics not only as a competition of ideas but also as a contest between liberal elites and the American public. He also added the irreverent and sometimes scandalous humor and cultural commentary of the great DJs. He introduced catchphrases still in circulation: “dittohead,” “Drive-By media,” “feminazi,” “talent on loan from God.”
The template he created has been so successful that the list of his imitators on both the left and right is endless. Even Al Franken wanted in on the act. Dostoyevsky is attributed with the saying that the great Russian writers “all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’” Political talk show hosts came out of Limbaugh’s microphone.
And for those who weren’t around back then, he was, and remains, a connection to an era where real, Buckley-style conservatism changed the world – with the hope it could change it again:
[Limbaugh] took from Reagan the sense that America’s future is bright, that America isn’t broken, just its liberal political, media, and cultural elites. “He rejected Washington elitism and connected directly with the American people who adored him,” Limbaugh said after Reagan’s death. “He didn’t need the press. He didn’t need the press to spin what he was or what he said. He had the ability to connect individually with each American who saw him.” The two men never met.
Limbaugh assumed Reagan’s position as leader of the conservative movement. In a letter sent to Limbaugh after the 1992 election, Reagan wrote, “Now that I’ve retired from active politics, I don’t mind that you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country. I know the liberals call you the most dangerous man in America, but don’t worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear ‘the way things ought to be.’”
Limbaugh gave a voice to a half of the country that’d always been expect to shut up and listen.
And for me? He supplied my life a major, inconvenient, and ultimately life-changing detour – and built an industry for me to come home to when the time was right.
All the best, Rush. I’m rooting for you.