I saw a recent news story online that the huge radio network Cumulus may be dropping the Rush Limbaugh show from their stations, due to the high cost of distributing it. Limbaugh’s program is syndicated through a subsidiary of Cumulus’ rival network, Clear Channel. Apparently, Cumulus is also considering dropping Limbaugh’s fellow radio blowhard, Sean Hannity.
I never liked Hannity’s program, either on radio or television. From the outset, I found his shtick off-putting. He found a very marketable way to package third-grade maturity and debating tactics, conducting interviews with all the grace and commitment to honest dialogue of a street thug. Selling to the ideological lowest common denominator while wrapping the product in an American flag is a time-tested formula for success, and he’s used it well in his rise to being the second-most listened to radio talk host in the country, second only to Limbaugh himself. Hannity is certainly an astute marketer of his own brand and reader of populist tea leaves, even if he is little more than a bullying stooge; a two-bit thug in a custom suit who likely spends more in a month on haircare than I do on groceries.
Limbaugh, on the other hand, is a different story. I remember back in the early 1990s, when he had only recently taken to the air. Those were the years that I was most conservative in my politics, and Limbaugh fanned those conservative embers into a flame. I loved Rush; I listened to most of his program most days while I worked. I bought his books, the T shirts, the coffee mugs. I even bought one of his God-awful neckties, realizing it would end up in the back of my closet, too tacky to ever wear in public. I ate lunch at “Rush Rooms” – restaurants which had tapped into the Limbaugh phenomenon by broadcasting his show in their dining rooms over lunchtime. I really, really wanted to go to Dan’s Bake Sale and be part of a national gathering of like-minded Dittoheads.
Back in those days, Limbaugh’s show seemed to be equal parts of conservative information and entertainment. He would feature various “Updates” – feminist updates, homeless updates, environmentalist updates, etc., each with their particular theme song. In the updates, he would poke fun at some outrageous statement made by proponents of those various advocacy movements. And frankly, the bits really were funny, even when you didn’t agree with Limbaugh’s political point. No matter what your own ideology, no matter what issues you support, liberal or conservative, each of those issues have people on the fringe who say some pretty stupid things, which invite and deserve satire. And back then, when it came to taking funny jabs at liberal positions, no one did it as well as Rush.
Over time, though, something happened. In my opinion, as his ratings soared and caller after caller gushed with compliments about him, Rush realized that he’d actually become a power broker – that his microphone could make major sways in people’s purchasing decisions, whether in the consumer world or in politics. Rush became a king-maker. And when he realized that, it wasn’t just his own personality and self-image that changed. His program changed as well, and for the worse. The humor became less and less a part of the show, being cast aside for the seemingly more important work of increasing the edge of the conservative ideological push, and all with the purpose of exercising that new-found king-making power. The hubris that followed undoubtedly led to a string of failings in his personal life, failings that were utterly inconsistent with the moral views his program ostensibly upheld and which, had they occurred in the lives of his liberal opponents, Rush would have used like a sledge hammer against them. In short, the show became almost uninterrupted political screeds with little or no humor, or for lack of a better word, joy. Rush went from being a radio host that people could, believe it or not, enjoy for the quality of his program even when they disagreed with him, to his being nothing but a testy mouthpiece for one particular strand of conservatism within the Republican party. He just wasn’t entertaining any more. Worse, his own personal failings and his conspicuous love of the finest material things in life – along with his continual blathering about them – began to not sit well with the regular folk who put him at the top of the heap to begin with. I think many of them started listening to him less and less. Rush Rooms began disappearing. Yes, his outrageousness and his commitment to an extreme conservative ideology would always attract new up and coming listeners, but more and more people seemed to be going out the back door as well. And I was one of them.
I don’t know exactly when I quit listening to Rush. I suppose it was probably around 2002 or 2003. On rare occasion now, if I’m changing radio stations and I hear him, I’ll listen to him for a few minutes, only to hear that he’s only gotten worse. In fairness, the time I stopped listening to him was when my own political thoughts began to shift to the left, so it’s likely that my differences with Rush were magnified by us both shifting, and in opposite directions. But it’s also possible that my becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Rush and the increasing mean-spiritedness of his comments were some of the first gentle nudges actually pushing me leftward. That’s possible. Mostly, though, my own shift was because at about that same time, I started seriously digging into my faith. I started to be exposed to strands of thought within the Christian faith that understood and interpreted the scriptures in ways that were different from what I’d been exposed to and taught previously. I began to understand that being serious about one’s faith didn’t require automatically latching on to conservative political ideology, or conservative theology, for that matter. To be certain, this new way of understanding the faith didn’t require a similar automatic acceptance of the liberal party line, either, but through this process I came to understand that faith, and life, were far more nuanced and complex than the simplistic ways of looking at things being preached, whether from the “golden EIB microphone” or from many pulpits, then or now.
As far as I can see – and I admit, I’m certainly not combing the media to keep track of him – Limbaugh’s shift toward mean-spirited outrageousness has only continued. I wonder if that’s nearing the tipping point, in consideration of this pending decision from Cumulus. The high costs of running the program, in conjunction with the lost revenue from numerous advertisers who have now refused to buy spots during his show – indicate that Rush may be on the downward side of the hill of his influence. It was the regular folk who put Rush at the top of the ratings, even if he was serving as the lap dog and mouthpiece of the country’s monied interests who have only scorn for those same regular people. But the regular folk have their limits. The regular folk understand fairness, and when someone has crossed the line. And when regular-folk commercial operations like Sears/K Mart, and John Deere decided to stop advertising on Rush’s show, that’s saying something serious.
I wonder how much longer it will be before Rush heads for the exit. Granted, he’s still at the top of the heap, so that isn’t coming any time in the near future. But people age, and times change. No radio program, and no person, lasts forever; and their ends may be more or less graceful. Will Rush decide to call it quits relatively gracefully, when he’s at least within sight of the peak that he’s certainly already crested? Or will his ego get the better of his business sense and his sense of legacy? Will he cling onto some version of his show, serving a smaller and smaller audience as the world changes around him and he becomes a caricature of his former king-making self? Will Rush eventually become the Pat Robertson of secular political radio – the nutty uncle who’s always saying something crazy, but since he’s just sitting in a corner talking to himself, he isn’t hurting anyone and it doesn’t matter? I wonder. Oddly, even though our politics are vastly different now, I’d probably listen to his program from time to time – occasionally, not obsessively – if he’d ever go back to the more entertaining, light-hearted, and less mean-spirited way his shows were in the early days. That’s not likely to ever happen, of course, but I know that with God, all things are possible, and that through God, people can and do have self-awakenings and humbly change. For his sake, I hope that he might have just such an awakening. On the other hand, if the combination of changing society and his hyperinflated ego do ultimately bring an end to his radio empire, I suppose we’ll all be able to say See, I Told You So.