OPINION — The beginning of the end of terrestrial radio began in 1979 with the introduction of the Sony Walkman, a hand-held device that allowed people to carry their cassette tape recorded personal favorite song lists with them without advertising interruptions. The beginning of the salvation of terrestrial radio began in 1983 when a failed music DJ and a director of group sales for the Kansas City Royals began a career as a talk radio host on KFBK (AM) in Sacramento.
Rush Limbaugh, who died last week, saved the terrestrial radio medium. Few people since Limbaugh took advantage of the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, were undecided about Limbaugh. Folks either loved him or hated him. And, that was his genius. Some of his regular audience listened to his daily radio show just to have someone to disagree with. He regularly outraged people, from the political middle to the far left. He didn’t care who loved him or hated him as long as advertisers wanted to reach them.
He gave conservatives an entertaining voice. He was controversial. And he generated revenue. From the beginning, people listened. They listened to verify their own conservative beliefs. They listened to verify their own liberal beliefs. And Limbaugh laughed all the way to the bank, as he became the most popular radio host in history.
Limbaugh knew how to use the language of the common man to make conservative ideas explainable. Prior to Limbaugh’s entrance to the political discussion, conservatism was explained to the general public by the likes of William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will (two of my favorites, by the way.) The average citizen could listen to and understand Limbaugh without the help of an unabridged dictionary. And, he made conservatism sound reasonable and liberalism sound unreasonable, and often laughable.
That, of course, is why conservatives loved him, and liberals hated him. Those of us who find ourselves in the political middle could take him or leave him. He was often entertaining enough to listen to – now and then.
As is often the case with charismatic people possessed of extraordinary communication skills, Limbaugh was also as full of flaws as an old tennis shoe.
He was a drug addict. He dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University after two semesters. He failed at every job he had from 1971 to 1983. He had three failed marriages and several failed relationships before marrying his last wife, Kathryn. (Elton John, was the entertainment at the last wedding.)
He was a hypocrite, having been busted for doctor shopping for oxycodone and hydrocodone. He had received 2,000 painkillers in six months. He settled, paid a fine, completed therapy and submitted to random drug testing. Prior to his arrest, he declared that drug law violators needed to be busted, tried, convicted and sent to prison.
It wasn’t particularly unusual to have a fact checker discover that some of the things he said on his show weren’t precise. Examples: he said President Barack Obama wanted to mandate circumcision and that the existence of gorillas disproves the theory of evolution.
He could be profoundly insulting – sometimes deplorably so. On one of his television show episodes, he said the President Bill Clinton and family had a “White House Dog” while producers displayed a photo of their daughter Chelsea. He claimed Michael J. Fox exaggerated the effects of his Parkinson’s Disease in a political ad. He made numerous remarks over the years that were sexist and racist.
His arrogance and pomposity were a part of his “act.” Whether you loved him or hated him or didn’t care one way or the other, his act was influential and consequential. In fact, he was the most politically consequential individual in the media since William Randolph Hearst or Joseph Pulitzer. Rush Hudson Limbaugh III, dead at 70.
Michael Sanborn writes from Rapid City.
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