Talk radio, in other words, appeals to a niche audience—drawing only a small fraction of the public even with its most successful shows, but still connecting with millions of people. The secret involves the fact that nearly everyone in the country listens to radio regularly—with a weekly audience most recently estimated at a staggering 242 million. This means that Limbaugh need not appeal to progressives or moderates or apolitical sports fans in order to maintain his franchise: he can remain a media powerhouse with an exclusive audience of hard-core right wingers.
As it happens, Rush actually does reach far beyond the conservative base—as do other successful right-leaning shows, including my own. Market studies show that a full third of the more than 4 million Americans who listen regularly to my radio show identify themselves as Democrats. They tune in to argue (we bill the show as “Your Daily Dose of Debate”), or to hear what the other side is saying, or to feel outraged or, we hope, to be entertained and informed. One of the lessons that radio consultants regularly attempt to convey is to avoid panic at the receipt of indignant letters or emails that promise “I’ll never listen to your show again.” Such pledges usually last until the next day of broadcasting, when the offended party tunes in to see if you’re still just as incurably awful as expected.
After all the Sturm-und-Drang over Limbaugh’s contraceptive controversy, this anomalous feature of radio reality means that a near-record audience will listen to his show to see how he follows up on the most recent developments. Even the withdrawal of leading sponsors and threats of boycotts won’t undermine his potency or power. The disenchanted advertisers will either return when the smoke clears or else find themselves replaced by other companies eager to reach an impressive audience.
Why, then, did Limbaugh take the uncharacteristic step of posting a statement on his website declaring that he felt sorry about his intemperate and tasteless comments, complete with an unequivocal declaration that “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices”?
I can’t offer inside information on El Rushbo’s motivations, but I strongly suspect that the apology stemmed not from wounds inflicted on his own interests, or pain visited upon Sandra Fluke, but from his undeniably damaging impact on the conservative cause.
On the hot issue of the Obamacare mandate that forces even religious charities to provide free contraception coverage as part of their insurance policies, Republicans could win the argument as long as the conversation focused on religious liberty and freedom of conscience. When the administration succeeds in shifting the discussion to access to birth control, we lose. If they’re able to frame an even more extreme narrative—that conservatives side with Catholic charities as part of an over-arching “war on women” —then we lose, big time. By attacking an articulate if sanctimonious law student as a “slut,” and suggesting that she post her sex “videos online so we can all watch,” Limbaugh made it vastly easier to characterize the conservative position as misogynistic and hateful.
Why should he care, if even more listeners tune in to his radio show for the next installment of troglodytic tastelessness?
Because, contrary to Rick Santorum’s dismissal of Rush as a mere “entertainer” (“an entertainer can be absurd,” Righteous Rick suggested), Limbaugh feels committed to conservatism, not just to his own success. By seizing angry attention in the midst of a presidential campaign from issues on which Barack Obama looks painfully vulnerable, Rush undermined Republican arguments and damaged conservative candidates, whether or not he undermined his own standing in the industry. To mitigate that damage, to change the subject to more promising and important issues, and not to protect his professional interests, that apology became not only appropriate, but absolutely necessary.