Whether it was the jealousy of his decades-long success or the disagreement with his politics, the hate heaped upon Rush Limbaugh following his announcement that he had advanced lung cancer was alarming.
The hatred was everywhere. A former CNN reporter said the world would be a better place without Rush, many on social media said Rush is headed for hell next, and comments on our own page referred to Rush as a racist. You learn a lot about who people really are when something like this happens.
Below is Eric’s commentary from Tuesday, following Rush’s announcement Monday. Following Eric’s piece you’ll be able to read the comments. We have not deleted or edited any.
The Rush Factor. Torpedoes Aimed at Radio
(By Eric Rhoads) Yesterday, as you know, Rush Limbaugh announced he has been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Listening to his announcement was sobering. Not only because it must be a horrible thing for him and his family to have to face, but because of the impact it could have on the radio industry.
Though many were not around to remember this, the AM radio band was virtually dead, with the exception of a few mega AMs in top markets. The industry was buzzing about how to keep AM radio alive. After all, all the music and all the youth had moved to FM. Then, like a superhero from outer space, Ed McLaughlin swooped down to save the day with a relatively unknown talent named Rush.
Rush grabbed immediate attention, and it was not favorable. But McLaughlin and Limbaugh did what few others would have done, then or today. They embraced the negative chatter and the advertiser boycotts, and they did not succumb to pressure to push Limbaugh off the air. Though a few stations probably did drop him, my guess is that others immediately picked him up. Today, 30-plus years later, Limbaugh is a national institution, much like Paul Harvey had become. He became a household name — a hero to some, an enemy to others. He also became a voice for the conservative movement.
Though most are rooting for Limbaugh and hoping that aggressive treatments will help him recover, because he is a radio brother, we have to wonder what the world will look like should he be forced to go off the air to live out his years, or worse. What then will happen to the AM radio industry, which he has carried on his back for so many years? Though Limbaugh is also on many FM stations, there will be a giant void for radio in general. No one, no matter how good, can equal his ability on the air. Though some come close, he holds the crown.
I’m sure there are hopes that Limbaugh will survive to do the show for another decade, but at 69, his airtime will one day come to an end, even if he stays on the air into his 90s, as Harvey did. That raises the question: Who, then, becomes the king of Talk radio?
Clearly there are some amazing talents who can step in and try to fill his shoes. But a bigger question is, what becomes of a radio format that is driven by aging boomers? Where is the farm team?
Limbaugh cut his teeth in smaller markets before he ever became a network superstar. And there are probably many local stars who have the chops to step up and become the next national hero among one or another political class. But what of future generations?
I sometimes wonder if anyone in the radio industry ever thinks about 10 years down the road, or has plans for scenarios like this one. Some industries look years ahead, anticipate social and business changes, and start training people for roles a decade before they are needed. How would we rate the radio industry on our long-range planning skills?
Radio, overall, is facing a massive migration problem. People under 40 are migrating away and spending their time elsewhere. For music, it’s Spotify or time on TikTok and SnapChat. From what I can tell, we’re not grooming talent and investing in capturing what may be a lost generation. And though we see CEOs gleefully claim that the ratings continue to show radio listening stronger than ever, we have to remember that listening is being represented by a few paid people with ratings monitors. How real is it that listening really is at such high levels? I’m not sure advertisers buy it, at least not if they’re doing focus groups.
Don’t get me wrong. Lots of people still embrace and love radio — but lots have migrated away. Maybe the old 1970s DJ in me wants to believe a myth, but it seems as though what captures people and creates buzz is content. Content has always ruled the airwaves, and it seems as if radio’s investing in unbelievably strong talent could be a play to get younger people to use radio again. Stealing the top social media talent, perhaps, and not taking them away from social, but leveraging the social to get people to listen to the radio show. If the right people say, “Listen to Spotify,” listeners will follow. The same should be true for radio.
If this is the case, could it save AM radio? Well, it worked with Rush, but that was with an audience who grew up with and knew AM. My teens probably don’t know AM exists and would not know how to find or use it. Yet if all their friends said their favorite YouTube talent was on the AM dial, they would find it. And if it was good, they would stay.
In 1999, when I went to Silicon Valley to start an online radio company, I said that radio would see a gradual erosion of audience. We’re seeing it now, whether the data from a narrowly controlled sample says so or not. Though radio probably never disappears (actually, you can still buy a telegram), it stands to be severely wounded unless we play off our biggest advantage.
I was listening to Spotify the other day while cleaning the garage and I was annoyed when any ads came on, and they were playing two minutes an hour. But I also noticed it would be nice to have some talent interaction. Spotify could crush radio by hiring dozens of great out-of-work radio personalities and offering optional channels with DJs. Chances are they are more likely to do it than radio is.
Though I’ve digressed from the Limbaugh factor to the lack of investment in talent, the outcome is the same. We knew of course that Paul Harvey would one day die, and his income at ABC was so huge that they should have worked for 10 years to train his one-day replacement and develop familiarity. They did not, and nothing could replace Harvey. The same will be true for Limbaugh. There is no replacement. His fill-in hosts are great, but never as good.
We can see our future, yet we, as an industry, refuse to address it, as if one day everyone under 40 will suddenly discover radio. Wouldn’t that be nice? Or else we’re believing our own hyperbole and don’t believe anyone has left. How silly is that?
The bottom line is, let’s all look forward, be realists, not stick our heads in the sand, and try to reroute the coming torpedoes. Though there are many ahead, Rush is the most immediate problem for Talk radio and AM radio.
I’m sad to hear about Rush. One of my big regrets is that we hurt or disappointed Rush when we decided to remove air talent from our “40 Most Powerful People in Radio” list. In reality, Rush was always at the top until we decided to change the makeup of the list. I never like to disappoint anyone. If we still included talent on the list, he would still be number one. Meanwhile, we offer our best wishes for a speedy and effective treatment.
Eric Rhoads is the Chairman of Radio Ink Magazine and can be reached at [email protected]