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Monday, March 12, 2012


Since the Rush Limbaugh kerfuffle broke last week, I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out how a Rush Limbaugh gets to be a Rush Limbaugh.
I mean, he has very little talent. He is not funny. He is not intelligent. He has very little education and he certainly isn't charming. But, he is no dummy. He gets paid ridiculous sums of money to do what he does and is insanely rich because of it. He has gotten to that point methodically and it was not by accident. He clearly has a game plan and has taken what little ability he was given and maximized it. In my mind, he has done his homework and found a niche, one which has been used and filled by many before him.  It is a tried, tested and true formula which has worked for ages..and always will.

  When I think I know someone but I really don't I go to Wikipedia and just start reading about their history. As I read up on Limbaugh's history, it is not surprising the career path he has chosen.

"I know how to do it. I know how to yank their chain. I know how to send them into insanity. I know how to make them spend the next two days talking about me."

 His family has always been involved in politics in some way and have always been conservative leaning. He comes from a family of judges, politicians and high rollers. All he wanted to do was be a radio personality, even when he was 8 years old. His family didn't approve, but he wanted it and he found a way to get where he wanted to be.

  When he first started out, Limbaugh was a DJ, back in the late 60's and early 70s. As anybody who gets involved with radio knows, unless you are at the absolute top of the food chain, say a Casey Kasim, Wolfman Jack, Rick Dees or in a very big city and on the morning or afternoon drive, you don't make a very good living spinning records and telling lame jokes.

"I've found my niche, you know? I like doing my radio program. And I like keeping myself sort of special and exclusive to the radio audience. And when you do three hours of radio a day — as you well know — there's not much else left to say that day when you go somewhere else and say it."

It is a transient lifestyle and you are likely to live in 10 to 15 cities in your lifetime and work some odd hours. (Town to town..up and down the dial-WKRP in Cincinati..theme song.)
You are also very likely to go on location and do stereo ads.

 "I do not allow myself to be constrained by people who say 'you can't say that'. So I say nothing that is shocking or surprising. It's just that nobody has the courage to say it anymore because they are afraid they are going to offend somebody. I don't have those fears. I'm a communicator. I'm a broadcaster."

 In radio, the big money is in talk radio. If you are good at it and can draw and maintain an audience, you will get syndicated and make big money. Larry King was very popular for a very long time long before he was Larry King on CNN. He started out in Miami, then became syndicated and then moved to CNN. It was a long slow process and ended with him being the icon he has become.

Larry King in the early days on Miami Radio in the late 50s early 60s
 Rush Limbaugh, for the most part, took the exact same path and used that blueprint to become the success he has become. And make no mistake, as vulgar and repulsive as he is,  he is a huge success. There is no dispute about that.

Rush Limbaugh in his earlier days in radio
 Limbaugh began his career in radio as a teenager in 1967 in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, using the name Rusty Sharpe. After dropping out of college, Limbaugh moved to McKeesport, Pennsylvania. In 1972, he became a Top 40 music disc jockey on WIXZ, a small AM radio station that reached much of the Pittsburgh area. He started with an afternoon show and later did mornings, broadcasting under the name "Jeff Christie". Limbaugh moved to Pittsburgh station KQV in 1973 as the evening disc jockey. He was fired in late-1974. Unable to find another job in local radio, Limbaugh moved back home to Cape Girardeau. For the rest of the decade Limbaugh took jobs at several radio stations, working in music radio, before settling in Kansas City. In 1979, he left radio and accepted a position as director of promotions with the Kansas City Royals baseball team.
 In 1984, Limbaugh returned to radio as a talk show host at KFBK in Sacramento, California, where he replaced Morton Downey, Jr. In 1988, after achieving success in Sacramento and drawing the attention of former ABC Radio President Edward F. McLaughlin, Limbaugh moved to New York City and began his national radio show. Limbaugh's radio home in New York City was the talk-format station WABC, 770 AM, and this remains his flagship station
 In December 1990, journalist Lewis Grossberger wrote in The New York Times that Limbaugh had "more listeners than any other talk show host" and described Limbaugh's style as "bouncing between earnest lecturer and political vaudevillian".
 The program gained more popularity and was moved to stations with larger audiences, eventually being broadcast on over 650 radio stations nationwide. Limbaugh signed an 8-year, $400 million contract extension with Clear Channel in 2008.
Limbaugh figured out that the path he was on prior to his talk radio days was not going to work and he reloaded with a new strategy that ended up working like a charm.

 But many try that path and fail. Some stay local, others syndicate and have moderate success or fade off completely. Limbaugh has built a following and an empire with his style. Don Imus is another who has also used the exact same strategy and succeeded. So, why has this worked for him where others have failed?

Rush Limbaugh is a one trick pony. He is a loudmouth and he is abrasive. And he is wise. Yes, he is wise. He has figured out that is the way you make money in radio. He tried tv and it didn't work for him. He was smart enough to figure out that would not work.

American and British television and radio have a long history of a fascination with loudmouths. We all have a Rush Limbaugh in the family. An Uncle Harry who we see at weddings. The one who squeezes your hand too tight or pinches your cheeks. The one who tells lame jokes that we have all heard before.The one who's wife loves him but is embarrassed by him.

One of the first to use this fascination to his advantage was Jackie Gleason. His Ralph Kramden character was solely based on this concept. The lovable loudmouth who nobody took seriously. When the Kramden character had run its course by the late 60s, the stakes were ratcheted up a notch when a character on another level was introduced.

 Archie Bunker was the creation of Norman Lear, and was the meshing of his father and a copy of a British show called Till Death Do Us Part.

 After the success of All In The Family, Lear spun off two other loudmouths with similar success. The Jeffersons, a black loudmouth,  and Maude, a feminist loudmouth,  used exactly the same formula but appealed to a slightly different audience. All three shows were huge hits. Others tried to copy those shows, but they never could.

"anything but tranquilizing. Right on Maude."

we finally got a piece of the pie.  Took a whole lotta tryin',
Just to get up that hill.
Now we're up in the big leagues,
Gettin' our turn at bat.

The tradition was continued on the sitcom Taxi with the character Louie Depalma,  played masterfully by Danny Devito.

We all are drawn to a character like that. While they are mostly obnoxious, they are interesting and definitely catch our attention.

 Of course,  one of the first to take it to another level was Howard Stern. While Stern is mostly gags and entertainment and Limbaugh is more political and satire and rants, they basically are doing the same act.

"My show was revolutionary. Groundbreaking. When I came on the scene people were not doing a thing. There were no Bill  Oreilly's who gave their opinion...the state of radio changed when I got into it."

-Howard Stern in the above interview with Bill O'Reilly.

"His act is based on a very simple concept. Saying whatever is on his mind, however offensive that is."

-Bill O'Reilly in describing what Howard Stern does.

Howard Stern has made a career appealing to a certain type of listener.  Rush Limbaugh has done the exact same thing. It is possible that is actually the same guy, or a different guy, but the approach is exactly the same.

"the secret to my show isn't dirty words. It isn't potty humor. The secret to my show is honesty." Reality. That I will say the truth".

-Howard Stern.

Talk Radio is a 1988  film, starring Eric Bogosian, Ellen Greene and Leslie Hope. Directed by Oliver Stone, the film was based on the play by Eric Bogosian and Tad Savinar. Portions of the film and play were based on the assassination of radio host Alan Berg in 1984.

 "That's where I come in, isn't it? I'm here to lead you by the hands through the dark forest of your own hatred and anger and humiliation. I'm providing a public service."

-Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio

 Alan Berg was one of the first to do the loudmouth act on Talk Radio, although he wasn't as abrasive and out there as Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh. In spite of that,  he did incite his audience and ultimately was shot to death in a parking lot in 1984. The recent bomb scare that Rush Limbaugh had was not the first time that someone in his business has had to deal with that and it is a real threat.

When you incite radicals, you are taking that risk.

Is Rush Limbaugh a racist? I don't know. He sounds like a racist and a sexist with much that he says. He is certainly a conservative. Self proclaimed in fact. Many conservatives can be characterized as racists, whether overtly like the KKK or covertly like the Republicans who enact laws that favor certain races over others.

He is an antagonist. He probably doesn't believe 90 percent of what he says. he says it to play the game and make money. For that, he is as smart as he is offensive. All of the above performers (Limbaugh, Gleason, Lear, Devito, Stern, Bogosian, etc) have learned to play the game and make money doing it. He is no different than them.  Yes, they have much more natural entertainment talent than him, but they are all doing the same act. And they all do it well,  like them or not.

We all know of very learned professors who bore us to death. We could choose to listen to them, but we don't. We could watch PBS and see them, but Jerry Springer is popular for a reason. The audience wants to be entertained, not educated. That was true back in Gleason's day, and it is true to this day. The final piece of that puzzle, the one that is the most recent, the guy who was the last to capitalize on that fact,  was American Idol and Simon Cowell. 

At the end of the day, there will always be a Rush Limbaugh. The populace want that type of entertainment and provoking. As long as that is the case, the ones that are smart enough to figure that out will be the ones who get rewarded.
Rush Limbaugh may be an offensive idiot, but he is no dummy.

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