Talent, Being Paid Back With Interest To God

Word’s out that Rush Limbaugh has died of lung cancer. He was 70.

I never met Rush, but I certainly ran into a key part of his legacy, up front. I was 25, and had gotten riffed from my first talk radio gig, at KSTP-AM. I was down – but not out. I had what Don Vogel called the talk radio virus – once you start doing it, it’s so very, very hard to withdraw.

And so I went out on the talk radio job market. And I had some interest – stations in Raleigh, Cleveland, Orlando, New Bedford, the Bay Area, Fall River, Baton Rouge, suburban Chicago, and even New York City had some interest.

Then came Limbaugh.

And over the course of about a year, nearly every small-to-mid-sized talk station in the country that used to hire obstreporous 25 year olds to host graveyard, evening and afternoon talk shows…stopped. Why pay some kid 22-28K, when you could have Limbaugh for the price of eight ad slots an hour, AND record and repeat him in the evening, and maybe on graveyard as well?

So the market for what I wanted to do more than anything in the world pretty much disappeared.

Which isn’t to say that the talk radio market disappeared. From 1988 into the nineties, talk radio, mostly conservative talk, surged. The format went from something like 200 stations in the US in the mid-eighties to at one point close to 1000 on Limbaugh’s network alone, as ailing AM stations from coast to coast switched from country or oldies or polka to talk and started reeling in the profits. There was money in conservative talk! Today, while the shift from broadcast to digital has cut receipts all across the industry, conservative talk, along with some niches like sports, Spanish and of course Public radio are the only ones that have any financial upside at all.

It came as a shock to the media establishment – but even some of the people involved (or claiming to have been involved) in his success didn’t understand what made Rush blow up. In 1991, I interviewed for the program director job at KSTP. I got to the final round – me and one other guy. And one of the interviewers was a consultant, one of hundreds who claimed to have had some role in Rush’s ascendance. He asked me why I thought Rush had caught on so big. “He provided a voice to a lot of people who’d never had one in the media”, I responded. “No”, he said in that “you didn’t get the job” kind of tone, “it’s because he’s irreverant. Nobody cares about politics”. I didn’t get the gig – although the consultant later admitted he was completely wrong. I’ll take a partial win every time.

Because politics – especially giving voice to a vast, silent majority – was the first golden age of conservative talk, culminating with Rush playing a pivotal role in the 1994 Republican Revolution.

I spent those years listening to Rush from the outside, slowly putting that dream from my twenties in mothballs – but listening, carefully, to what made Rush, Rush.

It’s a cliche to say that Limbaugh invented conservative talk. He didn’t – Bob Grant, Joe Pyne and Morton Downey Junior were doing it as far back as the ’70s. But Limbaugh defined its new generation – brash, irreverant, fun, but combining keen knowledge with an unmatched ear for tone and nuance. Rush was a keen-eared entertainer – the entertainment always came with a dose of paleocon wisdom that stuck to your ribs. It’s a cliche to say he had many imitators but no equal – but it’s the truth.

I spent 12 years “in the cold”, in radio terms – I didn’t set foot in a studio during Rush’s glory days. But I listened. And to the extent I learned anything listening to Rush, banked away against the day I could get on the radio again (something I’d completely given up on by about 1995), it was this: have fun. To paraphrase Andrew Breitbart, political motivation is downstream of enjoying yourself – and people who enjoy what they’re doing, as they do great things they believe in, are unbeatable.

Of course, Limbaugh was a two-edged sword. He ushered in a business model that has centralized the money, and the talent – or, often, “talent”, in talk radio. After thirty years of Rush, Beck, Levin, Hannity, Dennis Prager, Laura Ingraham and other talk superstars eating up all the airtime, talk radio’s grapefruit-league and triple-A benches are sparse to none. The only “young” talkers who’ve been working their way up the system have been the ones that mined veins of material that the bigs didn’t cover (Phil Hendrie, TD Mischke), built local niches around the fringe of Rush’s empire (Bob Davis, Justice and Drew), stretched the format (a zillion Christian talkers) to…

…well, King, Brad and Me, who do it for the pure love of the game and a little extra change.

So I owe Rush a lot – for pushing me against my will to develop a different, broader, deeper, better life than I was aiming for as a 25 year old radio (I use this term advisedly and in its literal context) addict, and showing us all how it’s done.

Talent on loan from God, indeed.

11 thoughts on “Talent, Being Paid Back With Interest To God

  1. You, Brad and King have done some great work over the years. I am glad you have the opportunity.

    Doing radio well is hard work — you have to engage your audience every time or you’ll be gone soon. Even as a guest, it’s a challenge. You have to be able to present your ideas quickly and cogently and keep things moving. The list of successful long-time talk show hosts is short, precisely because it’s so tough to do. Rush Limbaugh made it seem effortless, but it wasn’t. He had to be able to buttress every utterance he made. He had enemies who spent three decades trying to chase him from the air. He had to be on guard every moment. And he pulled it off. He towered over his enemies and challengers. No one was ever close to him.

  2. Limbaugh was not a political theorist, but he understood how the levers of political and media power work, and he was deeply cynical about the motivation of people who wanted to “make things better.”
    Limbaugh was under attack by Progressives, personally and professionally, for virtually his entire career, especially for his mockery of progressive figures &
    fads (“feminazis,” etc.). His voice was a constant reminder to progressives that an awful lot of Americans think that they are full of shit, and are willing to say so.

  3. I disagreed with Limbaugh often. Having said that, I do I did think he was an extraordinary storyteller — and quite funny. I loved the way he punctured the conceits of certain Democrat politicians.

    He was a good political humorist — much in the tradition of Will Roger — though obviously much more partisan.

    His radio stage craft was so very good . Limbaugh had a vocabulary above and beyond the spoken tongue. Sighs, pauses, chortles, snorts and the rustle of paper was the unspoken language with which he communicated with his audience. Though I found him wanting as a thinker, as a performer he was brilliant.

    Limbaugh was an outstanding personality of our time, whether you like him or not. He excelled in his field.

  4. It was 1988. I was listening to 🎵 KaaayGeeOh, Newstalk radio eiiiiiighty oneeeee! at work, as usual 🎶

    The usual afternoon guy, Jim Dunbar was informing us KGO was going to give this guy “Rush Limbwah” from Sacramento a shot. He didn’t say it, but it was a shot at Dunbar’s timeslot, and he got it.

    I was never a big Rush fan. He was alright, but when you know exactly what a guy is going to say on any subject it gets a bit boring, and I’ve always preferred talking about local issues (which is what Dunbar did) rather than national. That said he was really good at getting under Memaw Clinton’s skin, and for that I’m ever grateful.

  5. His radio stage craft was so very good . Limbaugh had a vocabulary above and beyond the spoken tongue. Sighs, pauses, chortles, snorts and the rustle of paper was the unspoken language with which he communicated with his audience

    Couldn’t agree more. During my years in the cold, I probably listened to Rush as much to take apart his command of the craft as for the politics.

    I linked to this fairly essential bio of Limbaugh back during his twentieth anniversary as a network host that covered that aspect pretty well.

  6. It’s a sad year for the golden microphone; I liked Rush, but I really, really loved it when the first guest host to be descended from slaves took the Attila the Hun chair.

    My favorite Limbaugh bit was when he did a bit about something only women do in the car–and he gave the French word “fard” (to paint, put on makeup) a more European, harder D. My wife and I still laugh about that one. And then the Klaus Nomi bit…..

  7. I used to work with two Democrats; one of which was pretty hard core, but he was basically a nice guy. The other one is now a conservative. Hard core guy was also one of those cheap asses that always forgets his wallet, his car needs gas, so he can’t drive, etc. One day back during either year three or four of Obama’s second term, four of us went to lunch. Fourth guy was gay, but believe it or not, is a staunch conservative and an active member of the Log Cabin Republicans. I drove. When I started the car, Rush was on the radio. Hard core sort of whined, “Do we have to listen to this a-hole?!” I just grinned at him and replied, “You could’ve driven, dude!” shutting him up quickly. So Rush was talking about Obama being proposed to be immortalized on postage stamps. He then said “Obama already has stamps named after him. They’re called food stamps!” Of course, three of us laughed pretty hard, but hard core kept stoic for a few minutes, then reluctantly agreed that the bit was pretty funny. The one that is now conservative, started listening to Rush from that day on.

  8. Pingback: In The Mailbox: 02.18.21 – The Rush Limbaugh Memorial Edition : The Other McCain

  9. His talent was obfuscation and projection, finding code words to condemn more broadly what he then lied and said was meant narrowly.

    He once described the death of Jerry Garcia, Rush Limbaugh called him “just another dead doper. and a dirt bag” – since Limbaugh didn’t have the class to keep silent about the dead, and you want to express your ultimate reverence, let me take a moment to observe, these words so aptly describe Limbaugh that I need say nothing else.

  10. Bosshoss, I’ve bought dinners for people on the street, started a charity to provide scholarships to students in the name of my now dead (teacher) brother, and routinely sponsor at least 5 kids through Save the Children, how about you?

    You want to call someone a cheap ass, you better be bullet-proof in terms of criticism. DAMNED few Cons I know are charitable to people the don’t know personally, while they are/will be with those they do (to their credit). Almost w/o exception the hard core liberals I know, are generous to both. You seem to swim in the wrong gene pool, Hoss. Also, looking to preach hate toward people is hardly charitable, is it?

  11. DAMNED few Cons I know are charitable to people the don’t know personally

    Maybe you don’t know many conservatives? I mean, kind of surprising with an award-winning personality. Boss described one person he knew who was, through his personal experience, “exceptionally thrifty”, and you seem to take personal offense.

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