Here’s something to piss you off: A mega-successful AM radio icon’s business model essentially relies on offending people. The more incendiary the speak, the greater the outrage, the greater the interest, the higher the ratings. And that business model makes said radio host a minimum of $40 million a year. It would be the equivalent of me finding a job that would pay $20 million a year to play video games, write a few lengthy journalistic pieces, review albums, and critique vodka.
That radio icon, of course, is Rush Limbaugh. And his latest controversy, of course, is the remarks he made toward Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke and her congressional testimony about the access (or lack thereof) to affordable birth control. Limbaugh has since issued an apology on his website regarding his disparaging remarks toward Fluke. But the damage has already hit Limbaugh in his only apparent weak spot: his pocketbook. So far, nine major longtime advertisers, including Carbonite and ProFlowers, have pulled their ads.
For those who have been praying for Limbaugh’s downfall since the early ‘90s, it’s hard not to draw comparisons (and even hope) to Glenn Beck – another incendiary conservative commentator who went from Fox News royalty to Web broadcaster. But even through the last tumultuous week, Limbaugh showed he still had a tremendous amount of clout in conservative politics. Republicans have been slow to denounce Limbaugh. Those who have weighed in have made sure their statements were not too harsh to draw the wrath of Limbaugh’s followers. Presidential candidate Rick Santorum called Limbaugh’s comments “absurd”, but that’s hardly a denouncement. Limbaugh routinely says his comments routinely are misunderstood because he tries to show absurdity by being absurd ala Jonathan Swift.
Simply put, Limbaugh makes money by being offensive. And for some reason, his message and his medium have kept him in the spotlight for more than 25 years while other performers who’ve relied on similar tactics have disappeared from our cultural radar. In music, we saw Marilyn Manson’s sales decline as the shock factor wore off (but generating one of the Onion’s most famous headlines). Other artists such as Eminem and Dr. Dre have gone from having their music come up at congressional hearings on obscenity to having their presence be part of major advertising campaigns for Chrysler and Hewlett-Packard.
The answer to Limbaugh’s near Teflon ability to withstand controversy and continuously pull in viewers is his medium: talk radio. He tried the same approach with television, but his show lasted only four years. With AM radio, Limbaugh has tapped into a primal urge for millions of people: the desire to be offended. Like a stress test that elevates your heart rate while you do nothing but sit, Limbaugh supplies what I can only describe as a lunchtime hate fix. People listen, get pissed off (at either Limbaugh’s targets or the host himself), turn the channel, but eventually come back for another hit.
Most every high-ranking Republican is afraid to attack Limbaugh because they’re afraid of that one Arbitron rating that routinely gets passed around for Limbaugh’s show: 20 million listeners a week. However, millions of Limbaugh’s listeners are very likely on the opposite end of Limbaugh’s political spectrum. And like a great professional wrestling villain, Limbaugh practically begs audiences to boo at him. When the BP oil disaster was unfolding, he treated the company with more compassion than the residence of the Gulf Coast. While the Great Recession was shedding millions of jobs, he was telling about his corporate jet.
Limbaugh has lost advertisers, but his latest controversy will likely be too hard to resist for new advertisers to cash in. A few million more people will tune in over the next few weeks to hear what Limbaugh is going to say next. And for listeners, that powerful feeling of indignation, offense, and in some cases, pure hatred, is going to be too tempting to turn away. And that’s why Limbaugh’s continues to thrive where other shock performers have failed. The fate of Limbaugh’s program doesn’t lie in the advertisers, it lies in each listener who tunes in every day.