Is Rush Limbaugh The Alex Rodriguez Of Talk Radio?

Bloated Salary, Aging Audience Raises Doubts About Superstar Status

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

With Alex Rodriguez, the highest paid player in Major League Baseball, appealing his 200-plus game suspension for violating its ban on performance enhancing drugs, the fading superstar's day of reckoning has likely been pushed back several weeks, if not months, as lawyers haggle over the details of his penalty.

The scandal-ridden New York Yankees third baseman is trying to hang onto his legacy as one of the game's most dominant players. But he's struggling while the ground, and public opinion, shifts around him.

There's something fitting about Rodriguez and conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh making headlines at the same time. There's a curious comparison as the MLB searches for a way to keep the All-Star third baseman off the field while Cumulus Media publicly hints it's trying to bench Limbaugh from 40 of the company's AM stations nationwide. That's also a decision that will be made in the coming weeks and months.

For the two overpaid mega-stars who dominated their entertainment fields in the late 1990's and the early part of this century, the futures suddenly seems less bright. Like the Yankees' former three-time MVP who's accused of doping, it's looking more and more like Limbaugh will be permanently damaged by his own reckless behavior, and that his most dominant days may be behind him.

At age 38, the overpaid Rodriguez has passed his prime while Limbaugh is appealing to an increasingly aged audience, one that few blue chip advertisers are interested in reaching. (The average age of a right-wing talk radio listener is 67-years-old and rising, according to Vanity Fair.) And that was before a scandal consumed Limbaugh's career last year when, during three-day misogynistic rant, he attacked law student Sandra Fluke by calling her a "slut" and a "prostitute."

Note that just as Rodriguez can no longer carry the Yankees, Limbaugh can no longer carry his flagship station, Cumulus' WABC-AM in New York, which in recent years has dropped from the number five-rated station in the market, all the way down to number 15.

Limbaugh's failings still come complete with eye-popping fees for stations; fees that may have more owners following Cumulus' lead and looking for a midday replacement. The fees continue to climb while at the same time the pool of advertisers willing to touch Limbaugh's controversial program continues to shrink.

Having Limbaugh's expensive show on a station's lineup has always been seen as something of a loss leader, not a profits generator. But it proved to be a reliable way to boost the audience during middays, according to radio insiders. Dubbed "horizontal maintenance," it meant stations could rely on Rush's loyal Dittoheads to tune in everyday, which in turn would goose the stations' overall numbers and help them land national advertisers throughout the day who scanned for large total audiences. It was all part of the "Rush Advantage," which is how the talker's syndicator, Clear Channel-owned Premier Networks, pitched the business.

But no more.

Limbaugh's Fluke fiasco has chased away so many advertisers from buying time on talk radio, that the Dittoheads no longer help land new business. "If you listen to Rush's commercials, it's all direct response stuff. There are no blue chip advertisers left," talk radio consultant Holland Cooke told Media Matters. "Even my staunch Republican radio clients complain about it."

Just this May, a Clear Channel executive had to write an apology letter when a station advertiser's commercial mistakenly appeared within the confines of Limbaugh's programming. His show's considered off-limits for more and more clients.

Meanwhile, for the right to carry Limbaugh, stations have to not only pay annual upfront premiums, they have to give up roughly half their advertising inventory during the three hours when the show airs (his syndicator sells that time), plus they have to forfeit five ad spots every morning to promote the show ("The Rush Morning Update"). Stations often have to give up three hours each weekend for a Limbaugh rerun, too.

All these extras are known as "cram downs." And when Limbaugh was the king of AM radio and attracted national, A-list advertisers the additional fees were justified. But today?

And then there's the lingering question about Limbaugh's nationwide draw and whether he actually attracts 20 million listeners each week, which the Clear Channel team has claimed for decades. After the radio ratings firm Arbitron changed the way it measured listener radio habits, opting for the more accurate people meters, the talk format took a hit.  "Talk radio, a largely conservative format, turns out to have fewer fans than previously thought," the New York Times reported in 2009.

Note that same year when Pew asked people about viewing/listening habits regarding Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Limbaugh, the AM talker came in a distant third, suggesting that claims about an audience in the eight-figure range were wildly exaggerated [emphasis added]:

It is important to note, however, that Limbaugh's syndicated radio show does not have the reach of O'Reilly's nightly cable program. Among the general public, 10% said they regularly watched O'Reilly, compared with 7% who regularly watched Hannity & Colmes and 5% who regularly listened to Limbaugh. Among conservatives, 19% said they regularly watched O'Reilly, compared with 12% for Hannity & Colmes and 10% for Limbaugh.

In general, O'Reilly and Hannity draw an audience of between two and three million viewers on Fox News. Based on that Pew survey, it would appear Limbaugh's real-time audience hovers between one and two million fans. "The clout of Limbaugh - and the legion of talkers who parrot his narrative - has been over-estimated," Cooke wrote in his August newsletter.

Like A-Rod, it looks like Limbaugh's 20 million number was juiced.

Rush Limbaugh
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