Rush to the Bottom

By Frum, David | Newsweek, March 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

Rush to the Bottom


Frum, David, Newsweek


Byline: David Frum

Huckabee's about to take the mike. Can he push Limbaugh off the talk-radio throne?

Over 25 years in radio, Rush Limbaugh's dominance of the AM dial has become a fact of American life.

Until, maybe, now.

Yes, Limbaugh's tirade against law student Sandra Fluke has been a problem, inspiring more than 30 advertisers to flee his radio program in the past two weeks. But on April 2, Limbaugh will face a more-serious challenge. That's when the new Mike Huckabee show launches on 100 stations in Limbaugh's very own noon-to-3 time slot.

Huckabee's competition threatens Limbaugh not only because Huckabee has already proven himself an attractive and popular TV broadcaster, but also because Huckabee is arriving on the scene at a time when Limbaugh's business model is crashing around him.

To understand the power of Huckabee's challenge to Limbaugh, you have to understand the strange economics of talk radio. Most talk-radio programs offer radio stations this deal: we'll give you three hours of content for free. (Some programs--cough, Glenn, cough, Beck--actually pay radio stations to accept their content.) Those three hours will include 54 minutes of ad time. That ad time is split between the radio station and the show: each gets 27 minutes to sell.

In this world, Limbaugh is unique. He actually charges radio stations for his content: up to $1 million a year in a major market. Plus, he charges the highest ad rates in the business. Those two revenue streams--multiplied by more radio outlets than anybody else in the industry has--have made Limbaugh a very rich man. But those revenue streams always depended on Limbaugh upholding his end of the bargain: delivering the audiences. And on that count, Limbaugh has been notably failing.

As The Daily Beast's John Avlon reported last week, the audience for right-wing talk has been shrinking since 2009. In some urban markets, Limbaugh's audience has dropped by as much as half over the past three years. Limbaugh and other right-wing talkers have responded to this economic squeeze by a strategy familiar to Republican politicians: they have played to the base.

But even more than the total size of the audience, radio advertisers care about a measure called TSL: time spent listening. The people who listen longest are of course the most ideologically intense.

Here's how this operates in the real world. Limbaugh knows that his share of big markets like Dallas or Atlanta has dropped from his old 5 percent in any given hour to, say, 3 percent. But if he can entice that 3 percent to listen twice as long, he can more than make up the loss.

That imperative explains why Limbaugh kept talking about Sandra Fluke for so long. He was boosting his TSL to compensate for his dwindling market share. Few things boost TSL like getting the old folks agitated over how much sexy sex these shameless young hussies are having nowadays. (And make no mistake: Limbaugh's audience is very old. One station manager quipped to me, "The median age of Limbaugh's audience? Deceased.")

This background may explain why so many of Limbaugh's advertisers bolted for the exits when the Fluke rampage went wrong for Limbaugh. It wasn't social conscience: Limbaugh has said offensive things before. It wasn't social media: Facebook and Twitter existed back in 2009, when Limbaugh explained how the Obama presidency had emboldened black schoolkids to beat up whites on schoolbuses.

The difference this time is that Limbaugh's advertisers and his stations had already begun to feel ripped off. …

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