Rest in Peace, Rush Limbaugh

Talk-radio legend and the master of the golden mic Rush Limbaugh passed away Wednesday after a fight with lung cancer.

Limbaugh—who fans affectionately called Rush (or “El Rushbo”)—pioneered the conservative talk-radio format.  After the lifting of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1987, radio and television no longer were required to present both or all sides of an issue being debated.  That made it possible for entire programs to be dedicated to commentary tilted towards one political worldview or another.

Into that new media environment stepped Rush.  He was the first of many to seize upon the idea of delivering withering attacks on the Left and Democrats through the format of a three-hour radio program.

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Long Live Rush Limbaugh

For conservatives, one of the most powerful moments of last week’s State of the Union Address was when President Trump awarded talk-radio legend Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor a president can bestow.  This morning, NEO at his blog Nebraska Energy Observer has a piece up, “The Era of Limbaugh,” which is a must-read summary of Rush’s legacy.

It’s hard to understate El Rushbo’s influence.  For many of us, he was our first exposure to conservative talk-radio (I even named the microphone we used for announcing football games “The Golden Mic”).  He is a tent pole in the 12-3 PM time slot—unwavering, unshaking.  I remember back in 2012 when a local Florence, South Carolina radio station dropped Rush—and he was unavailable in the Pee Dee for a few days (until another station picked him up a few days later).  It was pandemonium!  Well, at the very least, listeners were quite irate.

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The Ascendance of Christian Radio

An interesting bit of data:  Christian radio gained the most number of stations in 2019.  Ninety-two of those stations were designated simply as “Religion” stations, while another sixty-one were “Contemporary Christian.”  That’s even with “Southern Gospel” and “Black Gospel” losing stations (eleven and five, respectively).

That puts “Religion” in second place, coming in behind the popular “Country” format and beating out my favorite, “News/Talk.”  That’s pretty substantial growth.

Could that upswing be a sign of greater faith?  I’m not so sure.  It does seem heartening that Christian radio is gaining stations; presumably, owners wouldn’t establish religious stations or change existing stations to that format if listeners aren’t there.

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Talk Radio: America’s Voice

I am a huge fan of talk radio.  Indeed, my dream job (other than teaching) is to be a talk radio show host at a local AM or FM news-talk station, maybe doing a morning show (I could at least take Glenn Beck’s sanctimonious nine-to-noon spot).  Strangers often tell me “you sound like you’re on the radio,” and talk-radio is basically everything I like about teaching without the grading.  I’ve guest-hosted online programs before, and have toyed with the idea of doing a weekly TPP podcast, but the real dream is to be on a terrestrial radio station.

As such, I was thrilled to stumble upon an interesting piece on Politico this week about AM radio stations across the country.  The piece, “The Lo-Fi Voices That Speak for America,” gives a brief overview of five broadcasters from across the country (including a Navajo-language broadcaster).  It’s worth taking ten minutes of your Tuesday morning to read through it.

The major takeaway from the piece is this:  listeners value relevant, local, even niche content.  One reason blogs and podcasts are so appealing is because they have the time and space to deal with niche (even fringe) topics in-depth at at-length.

A shortcoming of terrestrial radio, especially commercial radio, is the constraints of advertising.  I did the math once:  Sean Hannity’s program, which I listen to, in part, almost daily, consists of about thirty-two minutes of actual content per hour—and that includes the twice-hourly, one-minute cut-ins between commercial breaks.  An opening segment runs from 3:05-3:20 PM, with a one-minute cut-in at around 3:25.  He doesn’t begin his second segment until 3:35.  That means there’s nearly fifteen minutes of commercials (as well as local news updates, etc.) between segments.

Local programming, however, seems to have more space for topics, and a smidge more flexibility.  Local hosts also have a better “feel” for their communities, and the topics that people want to hear about.  Austin Rhodes has been a fixture in Augusta, Georgia, for thirty-plus years for that very reason.  Ken Ard’s programGood Morning Pee Dee, is hugely popular in Florence, South Carolina (plus, it’s fun to hear a populist good-old-boy run down the news of the day).

There are some crummy local hosts (there’s a local former mayor with a show on Augusta’s news-talk station who sounds like paint-drying), but at least there’s some color.  The downside to nationally-syndicated shows is that they tend to blur together.  The best national programs (besides the king, Rush Limbaugh, whom many imitate) are the wackiest.  That’s why Michael Savage is so fun—he goes from railing against elites to spending half-an-hour talking about what he had for dinner.

I just wish they’d give Gavin McInnes a terrestrial show, but I don’t think he could police his bad language enough.  Thank goodness for podcasts.