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Limbaugh, Rush (1951—)

The undeniable king of conservative talk radio during the 1990s, Rush Limbaugh spread his vituperative conservative agenda across the airwaves, making him one of the most controversial and talked-about public figures of the decade. A new era of talk radio—when programs devoted to commentary (as opposed to the traditional mixture of music and news) dominated radio programming—was ushered in through satellite technology, which allowed an AM radio program to be broadcast live across the United States (or even the world), enabling listeners nationwide to call in to a show and participate on the air. Some of these programs were devoted to sports (The Fabulous Sports Babe), while others practiced a mixture of crude sexual titillation and outrageous social commentary (Howard Stern, Don Imus). But the most popular genre of talk radio involved political commentary, and the czar of this milieu was undeniably Rush Limbaugh.

Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he developed an interest in radio at a young age, working as a deejay at a local station while still in high school. Admitted to Southeast Missouri State College, he dropped out after his freshman year. He then held a number of jobs at small radio stations around the country, followed by five years as a public relations assistant for the Kansas City Royals baseball team. Limbaugh returned to radio in 1983, when a Kansas City station hired him as a talk show host and commentator. It was in this job that he first began to manifest what would become his characteristic style, though apparently neither his audience nor his employers found Limbaugh's approach appealing, since he was fired after ten months.

Limbaugh's career began to turn around the following year, however. In 1984, he was hired by KFBK, a San Diego station that was in dire financial trouble and whose owners were willing to gamble on something new. They gave Limbaugh a three-hour morning show, along with free rein to be as outrageous as he wished. This time, the "Limbaugh style"—a blend of conservative politics and acid humor directed at liberals—was more successful. Limbaugh's show soon became the most popular radio program in the city.

In 1988, Limbaugh's reputation (and ratings) came to the attention of Edward McLaughlin, who had just founded the Excellence in Broadcasting Network—a radio syndicate with fifty member stations. Limbaugh was relocated to New York City and turned loose on a national audience for the first time. He was a hit almost instantly. His audience (largely white, male, conservative, and young) apparently delighted in Limbaugh's characterization of liberals as, variously, "feminazis," "environmental wackos," and "hustlers for the homeless." Since Limbaugh takes calls while on the air, many of his fans have taken to expressing their agreement with him by uttering a single word: "dittoes," thus joining the army of self-proclaimed "dittoheads."

Limbaugh's popularity—he was, within four years of going national, the most popular radio talk show host in the United States—did not only stem from his verbal jabs at the left. He often combined the words with the ironic use of audio effects. A regular segment entitled "AIDS update" featured as background music Dionne Warwick's "I'll Never Love this Way Again," and a report on liberal efforts to protect endangered species was accompanied by the Andy Williams song "Born Free," interrupted by automatic weapons fire and the sound of animals screaming. Many critics believe that Limbaugh reached his nadir when he began subjecting the rare hostile phone call to a "caller abortion," wherein the unfortunate individual on the line (and the radio audience) was subjected to the sound of a vacuum pump before the call was disconnected.

Rush Limbaugh's influence went beyond his ability to bring in vast audiences and big bucks. He is widely believed to have played a role in the 1994 off-year elections, when the Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives. Limbaugh's on-air advocacy was supplemented by numerous personal appearances at Republican fund-raising events. He has also been known to affect legislation. President Bill Clinton's lobby reform bill initial had bipartisan support when he sent it to the House in 1995, but Speaker Newt Gingrich decided at the last moment to oppose it after he faxed his views to Limbaugh, who strongly criticized the plan on the air. The result: Members of Congress received a deluge of phone calls opposing lobbying reform, and the bill's support evaporated.

For a period of time during the mid-1990s, Limbaugh was a multi-media phenomenon. In addition to his three-hour radio show, he had a one-hour television program in syndication around the country. Further, his book, The Way Things Ought To Be, was a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. Loyal dittoheads could subscribe to a monthly newsletter, The Limbaugh Letter, which also told them how to purchase videotapes of their hero's personal appearances.

But Rush Limbaugh's star began to fade by the end of the decade. His second book, See, I Told You So, sold considerably fewer copies than his first. In 1996, Limbaugh decided to cancel his television show after a four-year run, because of declining ratings. At about the same time, a few radio stations stopped carrying Limbaugh's program, just as comedian Al Franken's tongue-in-cheek book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot began to climb the bestseller lists. It may be that the same shift in public opinion that led to the Democratic victories in the 1998 elections was also reflected in Rush Limbaugh's declining ratings, sales, and fortunes.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Colford, Paul D. The Rush Limbaugh Story: Talent on Loan from God: An Unauthorized Biography. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Haimson, Leonie. The Way Things Really Are: Debunking Rush Limbaugh on the Environment. New York, Environmental Defense Fund, 1995.

Limbaugh, Rush. The Way Things Ought To Be. New York, Pocket Books, 1992.

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Limbaugh, Rush (1951—)

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