It's been one year since Rush Limbaugh's invective-filled tirade against then-Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke. With hundreds of advertisers and millions of dollars lost, the business of right-wing radio is suffering, but Rush Limbaugh continues to act as if it were business as usual, which is why Limbaugh is still bad for business.
On February 29, 2012, Rush Limbaugh initiated a three-day smear campaign against Sandra Fluke, launching 46 personal attacks against her. This moment and Limbaugh's subsequent refusal to apologize for, or even acknowledge, all but two of those attacks put the spotlight on the right-wing talk business model that Limbaugh helped construct.
During the following weeks, headlines tracked in near real-time the names of advertisers exiting Limbaugh's show as pundits and natterers speculated about Limbaugh's future. As so often happens, the buzz faded and the news cycle rolled on. But the consequences didn't fade, they intensified. This is due in large part to scores of independent organizers, like the Flush Rush and the #StopRush community.
Rush Limbaugh's recklessness damaged the radio industry and the business of conservative talk.
When advertisers began fleeing from his program, Limbaugh dismissed the losses as akin to losing a “couple of French fries” and insisted that “nobody is losing any money here.” This position seemed less tenable after Limbaugh employed the services of a crisis manager to handle the fallout, and the right-wing talker's protestations were proven false once financial reports started rolling in.
For example, Cumulus Media, a radio company that carries Limbaugh's show in 38 markets, reported millions of dollars in lost revenue and attributed the losses in part to the Limbaugh advertiser fallout. Dial Global, a radio syndication company, reported roughly $100 million in losses for 2012 and publicly cited Limbaugh as a significant contributing factor.
Owing to the structure of radio advertising, the losses Limbaugh felt rippled outward, intensifying their effect. Reports indicate that 70 percent of advertisers didn't know their ads were running during Limbaugh's show. From my own extensive conversations with advertisers, I would say that more than half were not aware that their ads were running during Limbaugh's show. That may seem unlikely, but it's quite possible after you consider how the ads got there in the first place.
Advertisers pay media buyers to negotiate rates and coordinate ad buys with radio companies. Typically they're just buying a certain number of commercials during a defined period of time. Consequently, the advertiser is often several steps removed from the actual ad placement. Once notified that their ads are running during his program, advertisers often immediately recognize that they shouldn't be supporting Limbaugh. They contact their buyer to request that the ads be removed and instruct them to exclude Limbaugh from future ad buys. After a few of their clients request the same thing, savvy buyers get the message. They start proactively excluding clients from Limbaugh's show. Many go a step further and exclude their clients' ads from programming similar to Limbaugh's, which amplifies the negative impact on right-wing radio.
Radio companies are still not equipped to respond to these kinds of client requests, which creates additional problems. The increased frequency of ads being run in error frustrates advertisers and strains relationships with the buying agencies. The Limbaugh advertiser problem is so significant that it has even spilled over into the business of online radio streams, according to Erica Farber, who is CEO of the Radio Association of Broadcasters.
At a Talkers forum last year, Norm Pattiz, CEO of Courtside Entertainment, summed up the destructive effect Limbaugh has had on the entire industry, noting that a “tremendous chunk of advertising revenue was wiped out in terms of support for national talk radio programs.” Pattiz added that “the movement in talk radio to some degree is moving away from conservative talk radio and into other genres.”
Despite continued rebukes by advertisers, and seemingly without regard for the damage he is causing, Rush Limbaugh adds to the problem by proceeding as if it were business as usual.
Every day, Rush Limbaugh reminds advertisers why they should be wary about associating with right-wing radio by filling his airtime with the same kinds of bigotry, deceit, and chicanery that have come to define his brand.
Last July, Limbaugh argued that feminism is “ruining women” and asserted that feminism was established so that “unattractive women” could have “easier access to the mainstream.” In September, Limbaugh warned that men's penises are shrinking and blamed “feminazis” and “chickification.”
Last month, Limbaugh inexplicably claimed “African-Americans today can be convinced that they are still slaves.” He also launched a series of slavery-based attacks on Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, wondering if Jackson Lee had “outlived her usefulness on the plantation.”
In December, he asked a caller: “You're a woman and you like the Super Bowl? Or, is that when your husband beats you?” Last month, he told another caller: “You know how to stop abortion? Require that each one occur with a gun.”
Limbaugh has argued that there is “scholarly research” to support his contention that Mexicans are lazy in comparison to Cubans.
I could go on (and there are plenty more examples), but my point is to illustrate that Limbaugh is just as risky today as he was when he made the Fluke comments. Advertisers don't want to associate with this kind of vitriol, and they know that since Limbaugh hasn't changed, it's only a matter of time before he causes another Fluke-like stir. And they don't want to be on the hook when that happens.
Rush Limbaugh is still bad for business.
The clearest indication that Rush Limbaugh is still bad for business is the fact that advertisers continue to flee his program. There are signs that the radio industry is internalizing that notion and adapting accordingly.
In some ways, the adaptation is taking place on branding and marketing grounds. When Philadelphia's WPHT replaced Rush Limbaugh with Michael Smerconish, promotional material for Smerconish that was sent to advertisers declared the era of “angry is over.” In the same vein, right-wing extremist Glenn Beck was replaced on twelve stations with moderate conservative Geraldo Rivera. Perhaps the era of angry is indeed over?
Mike Huckabee is trying to stake out a similar position. One radio company executive reportedly characterized the marketing of his show, saying: “They are positioning Huckabee as the safe, non-dangerous alternative to Rush.” It's debatable whether Huckabee actually is a “safer” alternative to Rush, but the key takeaway here is that some in the radio industry are trying to draw a red line between themselves and what Limbaugh represents.
Clear Channel's Premiere Radio Networks, Limbaugh's syndicator, had a difficult first quarter due to weak ad sales. They wouldn't offer additional information about this (and they don't have to because Clear Channel is a private company). But, given how much damage Limbaugh is causing to the broader industry, it's not much of a stretch to deduce that his home base is also experiencing some effect.
Last September, I attended the Radio Show, an industry event produced by the Radio Advertising Bureau and the National Association of Broadcasters. In every session that I attended, managing the negative impact of Limbaugh was addressed at some point - even in the sessions in which I didn't expect it to come up. Overall, I left with the impression that the industry is deeply aware that a problem exists and is in the process of adapting.
Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey signaled the toxicity of Limbaugh's business model as well as industry adaptation in a recent interview with Bloomberg TV, saying: “We're sort of seeing a shift in spoken-word radio from political-based talk over to sports.” Sports radio is popular with advertisers, Dickey explained, and “people may be a bit tired of all the partisan bickering.”
One year out from the attacks on Fluke, we see that Limbaugh's business model is not just bad for business, it's breaking talk radio.
And, onward we go...