Must run with the tag line: A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
Left-leaning pundits and activists who cackle gleefully at the prospect that current controversies will seriously damage Rush Limbaugh’s media career display their own vast ignorance of the talk-radio industry.
Yes, El Rushbo’s weekend apology for crude comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke demonstrate his own recognition that these remarks fell far short of the “broadcast excellence” he regularly promises his 15 million listeners.
But neither uproar from all quarters against Limbaugh’s language, nor the much-publicized phone call from President Obama to support Ms. Fluke in her silly face-off with the most popular talk host in radio history, will prevent those committed listeners (not to mention a host of curious newcomers to the show) from tuning in to Rush in the weeks ahead.
In other words, it hardly matters if 95 percent of the public disapproves of Limbaugh using terms like “slut” and “prostitute” in response to Ms. Fluke’s demand to Congress that insurance from her Catholic university must provide her with free coverage for all her contraception needs. Neither Limbaugh nor other leading talkers worry about the overall “approval ratings” that obsess politicians.
There’s an unbridgeable gap between the dynamics of conservative media and the imperatives of electoral politics. In order to succeed in radio, you don’t need to win a majority of Americans, or even a majority of Republicans, or even a majority of those who are listening at the specific time of your broadcast. In fact, a show that consistently commands 5 percent of the available, major-market audience will earn millions and count among colleagues as a spectacular success. Limbaugh himself, who often (but not always) dominates ratings around the country, almost never scores more than 10 percent of the big market listeners who tune in to some form of radio during his three-hour daily show. The leading metro areas each boast well over 50 radio stations, so a program that draws even a mildly disproportionate share of the audience on a reliable basis becomes an attractive proposition to advertisers and to programmers.