Rush Limbaugh, the father of conservative US radio, has died in his 70s of lung cancer, possibly caused by heavy smoking, leaving a huge void in the US media at a time when technological change and the controversy over the impartiality of informants is at the center of public debate in that country and the West. Such was his influence that Donald Trump, in his first statements after leaving the White House for Fox, has defined him as a legend.
Limbaugh was much more than a journalist. It was a cultural phenomenon. He is responsible for the popularization of the word feminazi. And, also, it was an economic phenomenon. Ultimately, he is responsible for the explosion of the Fox News network, with an air of a radio talk show, which has emerged as the leader of news television in the United States during practically the entire presidency of Donald Trump.
His audience was, however, always a mystery. The communicator’s claims of 20 or even 40 million people connecting to his show seem clearly exaggerated. Talkers magazine, specialized in the world of radio, gave a much lower figure recently: just 15 million. But the numbers only tell a small part of the story. Limbaugh’s audience loyalty was absolute. And his contract, of Messi’s dimensions, proves it: since 2009, Sirius, Sirius XM radio, paid him 100 million dollars – 83 million euros – annually. He has only been surpassed by the king of porn-radio, Howard Stern, whose style and manners are at the opposite of Limbaugh’s, with the exception, obviously, of the capacity for provocation.
Because what Limbaugh or as his ‘fans’ knew him familiarly, Rush, by his first name – was best known for is his controversies. He was able to broadcast on the air a song titled Barack the Magic Black about the then-president, Barack Obama. He was able to say that Canadian actor Michael Fox was exaggerating the tremors caused by Parkinson’s, while he mimicked on the air and broadcast via video on the internet the spasms of the Hollywood star and accused her, without proof to not take your medication. He was able, during his brief and botched Fox News television adventure in the 1990s, to say that “the White House has a new bitch. while the image featured a photograph of Bill Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, who was thirteen years old. And he was able, in 2016, to always make the same pun between and bitch bitch to refer to the Democratic candidate for the White House, Hillary Clinton.
Only Rush could say, as he did on February 25, that Covid-19 was just like a bad cold. Or suggest, on December 10, that the states won by Donald Trump secede and separate from the United States, something that is illegal according to the doctrine of the country’s Supreme Court.
With that attitude, it is not surprising that another man from the world of entertainment and lover of perpetual provocation, Donald Trump, gave Limbaugh the highest US decoration in peacetime: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Nor is it surprising that he did so in the most striking way possible: in the middle of the State of the Union Address, held exactly one year and ten days ago. Limbaugh, who attended as the president’s personal guest, received the award in Congress from the first lady, Melania Trump. It was the institutional consolidation of a communicator whose combination of comments, catchy nicknames, and ad hominem attacks was a constant factory of controversies in the United States that created a school within the country, first, and later exported to the whole world.
But Limbaugh not only established his empire on the airwaves because of his communication skills. Like all achievers, he came at the right time with the right idea and the right partner. His rise to fame came in 1988 when Californian radio entrepreneur Ed McLaughlin offered the commentator’s program free to US stations that wanted to accept it. There was only one condition: that those stations accept four minutes of advertising for every hour of show that McLaughlin’s production company would sell to advertisers across the country.
For radios, it was a bargain. Free content, just in exchange for giving those four minutes. What no one expected was the incredible audience boom that followed. In that, Limbaugh was also supported by technology. By the late 1980s, radio audiences in the United States had shifted from AM to FM in droves because of its far superior sound quality. AM referrals needed some kind of content that didn’t require great audio, and that’s where the provocative commentator came in perfectly. Marshall McLuhan already said it, who in ideological matters was also in a different galaxy from Limbaugh’s The medium is the message. On this occasion the AM.
The talent of the communicator did the rest. The result: three decades of dominance of political radio. Limbaugh withstood it all. Presidents. Political changes. Poor health of iron, which, like a Beethoven on FM, includes the total loss of hearing twenty years ago, and, also, an arrest and fine for addiction and illegal use of painkillers and anxiolytics.
His death leaves a void in America’s conservatism. It is a void that was already coming. Limbaugh’s audience is aging rapidly, and Covid-19 has caused daily car trips to the office to decline as telecommuting takes over. The transfer of The Rush Limbaugh Show to the Internet was successful but less than in its traditional AM medium. But that does not mean that his journalism model is in crisis. People like Joe Rogan, 53, are taking their lead in the podcast world. Limbaugh is dead; your radio model, no.