Editor’s note: The death of Rush Limbaugh, the growth of Newsmax and charges of censorship by Amazon and other book sellers are among the forces shaking up conservative media companies. In this three-part series, the Deseret News examines the challenges facing radio, television and book publishing, and how those challenges might affect the companies and you: the reader, listener and viewer.
Three weeks after his death, Rush Limbaugh still rules the most valuable real estate in radio. His talk radio show is still on the air even as millions of fans and would-be replacements wonder who will become the “the next Rush.”
It’s a question that vexed the the industry long before the king of talk radio died of lung cancer Feb. 17 without an obvious successor in place.
Although Limbaugh’s success gave rise to hundreds of other conservative talk shows across the nation — and elevated voices like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Mark Levin — analysts say there is no Prince Charles of talk radio poised to settle into Limbaugh’s throne with the same influence and audience size that Limbaugh had.
And whoever eventually takes over Limbaugh’s time slot will have to contend with tumultuous changes taking place in the industry, such as an aging audience and competition from podcasts and on-demand music on smartphones, as well as the inevitable comparisons to the man described on his death certificate as “the greatest radio host of all time.”
Limbaugh was a unique talent who defined talk radio for more than three decades, and it’s likely that no one can duplicate his success, said Donna Halper, a media historian who teaches communication and media studies at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Rush Limbaugh was on the air in a certain time in a certain space, when radio was still the dominant media and there was no one else doing what he was doing. Now every city has someone doing what he’s doing,” Halper said.
But that doesn’t mean that people aren’t salivating over the job opening.
As when the legendary disc jockey Scott Muni died in 2004, “Every talk show host from here to Alaska is sending their materials to the appropriate authorities in hopes of getting an interview,” Halper said.
Premiere Networks, the company that syndicates “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” could pluck someone from relative obscurity in a small market. Or it could play chess with its lineup, moving other conservative superstars into new time slots. Some people even hope that Premiere could convince a former president to take over the slot.
Industry analysts say Donald Trump would bring instant ratings but that it’s unlikely he would want the job, and a better choice might be to bring in a host who might appeal to a different type of audience, such as young Republicans or conservative women.
Here’s a look at options that Premiere, and its parent company, iHeart Media, may be considering, and why Limbaugh’s passing might signal trouble for AM radio, but not for the conservatism that the self-described “America’s anchorman” embraced.
The ‘obvious solution’?
Love him or loathe him, Limbaugh was a “ratings tentpole,” a term used in broadcasting to describe a person whose success trickled down to others, said Brian Rosenwald, scholar in residence at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Talk Radio’s America.” As such, he describes Limbaugh’s passing as a “seismic loss.”
“He catalyzed other shows with ratings. People would tune in before his show, or they left the radio on after his show was over, so the show after him got ratings. He was an anchor, and people don’t talk about this enough, but 12 to 3 is not really a big day part in radio. He was offering this huge benefit to stations in a window that is not the easiest in which to get a big audience or be really successful because a lot of people are at work,” Rosenwald said.
Fred Jacobs, a longtime radio consultant and president of Jacobs Media, likened the search for the “the next Rush” to the search for a replacement for Howard Stern, who left CBS for SiriusXM in 2006. There was no next Stern to be discovered, Jacobs said.
“Even though Premiere does have a whole gaggle of these guys and women out of the Rush school of radio broadcasting, there’s no replacing him.They would be wise to approach it from that standpoint. We’ve only been looking for the next Beatles for the past 45 years, and it hasn’t happened.
“Rush was a once-in-a-generation talent,” Jacobs said.
Limbaugh, who started working as a disc jockey at age 16, began broadcasting nationally in 1988, a year after the Federal Communications Commission ended its policy requiring that radio and TV stations give equal time to opposing viewpoints.
The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine is widely believed to have enabled Limbaugh’s success, as stations could air three hours of Limbaugh espousing conservative principles and skewering his ideological opponents without pressure to give equivalent time to Democrats. Limbaugh’s political detractors tried to find someone who could match Limbaugh in stature. A progressive network called Air America lasted six years and gave MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow her first national exposure.
But Limbaugh soon garnered a formidable audience and gave rise to an industry that was dominated by conservative voices. About 95% of talk radio hosts are conservative or libertarian in bent, according to Halper, who formerly worked as a radio consultant, training talk radio hosts.
Halper didn’t agree with Limbaugh’s ideology, but considered him “a very talented broadcaster” who was enormously entertaining in his early years.
“He was the salvation of AM radio, absolutely. He was somebody who made a huge difference for talk show hosts nationwide. He showed that radio is still powerful and can still make a difference,” Halper said.
Limbaugh used the medium to create a club for many conservatives, an on-air water cooler where people could gather in the middle of the workday to hear jokes, ridicule opponents and learn new, interesting things. In fact, talk shows in general serve that purpose, Rosenwald, of the University of Pennsylvania, said.
“The first two stations branded as all-conservative talk stations were in San Francisco and Seattle. That usually stuns people, because they’re such liberal places,” Rosenwald said.
“But you only need 3% to 5% of a market to have a really great station and in San Francisco and Seattle, the one thing you couldn’t openly be was a conservative. So it was kind of a clubhouse for people who couldn’t say what they thought, who felt like they couldn’t be open in their beliefs. They had this refuge in conservative radio.”
But Limbaugh didn’t just hold forth at the water cooler; he expanded into books, speaking tours and, for a while, television. In the early 1990s, some restaurants established “Rush rooms” where diners could listen to the show while they ate. And seeing his success, talk radio stations across the country hired people they hoped would be the next Rush, putting local conservative talkers on the air in the morning and afternoon slots.
Limbaugh joked that he wouldn’t stop talking until everyone agreed with him, and while he didn’t achieve that, his own reach, and that of his imitators, was enormous. His show was on more than 600 stations, and estimates of listenership ranged from 15 million to 27 million each week. Talkers magazine, which covers the industry, estimated the combined reach of the top 15 radio hosts in December 2020 at nearly 150 million.
The number of listeners, combined with the hours of content that are available, have turned millions of Americans toward conservatism Paul Matzko, author of “The Radio Right,” wrote for The New York Times.
“The typical major talk radio show is produced every weekday and runs three hours, so just the top 15 shows are putting out around 45 hours of content every day. Even setting aside hundreds of additional local shows, the dedicated fan can listen to nothing but conservative talk radio all day, every day of the week, and never catch up,” wrote Matzko, who believes that talk radio has steered many Americans toward the policies of former President Trump.
Rosenwald, the author of “Talk Radio’s America,” also has drawn a direct line from Limbaugh’s success to the election of Trump, saying, “His election is the purest product of the revolution Limbaugh began.”
But Rosenwald also sees a radio talent in Trump, who he has described as “less a president from central casting than a radio host.” But Trump fans shouldn’t get too excited about that prospect, he said.
“If Donald Trump wanted to do it, he’s the obvious solution. The problem is, and the thing that people outside radio don’t always understand, is that it’s a lot of work to do a three-hour daily show,” Rosenwald said. “I saw no indication, even when he was president, that Donald Trump wants to do that level of work.”
Other conservative stars with large followings, such as Hannity and Tucker Carlson of Fox News, already have generous salaries and long work days, and are unlikely to want to take on more work, the analysts say.
So who would?
Podcaster Ben Shapiro, who became the youngest syndicated columnist in the U.S. at age 17, is a possibility, Halper said.
Rosenwald said to keep an eye on Brett Winterble, who has the 3-6 p.m. show at WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, and once worked for Limbaugh.
But it’s ironic there are few, if any, obvious successors after Limbaugh launched scores of talk radio careers. That’s partly because of his exceptional talent, but also because he died at a time the industry is changing, and in recent years, stations have relied on syndicated programming instead of investing money in new talent, Rosenwald said.
The graying of talk radio
Although Limbaugh is credited with revitalizing AM radio, the number of AM stations is slowly declining. AM stations peaked at about 5,000 in the 1990s, coinciding with the proliferation of “Rush rooms.” In December 2000, there were 4,685 AM stations on the air; in December of 2020, there were 4,551, according to Paul McLane, editor of the trade publication RadioWorld.
“The physical number of stations on the AM band has not changed all that much, not dramatically, but the general perception about the AM band is, that’s not where the action is,” McLane said.
Also, the largest group of talk radio listeners is 65 or older, and not considered a desirable demographic for advertisers.
“The kind of talk radio that (Limbaugh) did attracts an older, whiter audience,” Halper said, adding that for someone to be successful in that slot now, he or she would have to find a way to bring in younger people. “And younger people are not listening to AM radio,” she said.
They’re listening to podcasts, which is one reason that Fox News now has an audio division and recently announced five new podcasts, including one with former Utah GOP congressman Jason Chaffetz. The parent company of Premiere Networks, iHeart Media, owns more than 850 radio stations in the U.S., but is also aggressively marketing podcasts and recently made headlines with its acquisition of Triton Digital.
At the start of this year, there were 1.7 million podcasts available in the U.S., according to Nielsen Global Media. While listeners of AM radio are older and white, podcasters draw a more diverse audience. According to Nielsen, 41% of podcast listeners are not white, “which makes the podcast audience more diverse than the country’s total population.” Podcast listeners are also younger and more educated than the general population.
The AM radio listener gets about 38 minutes of the talk show host and 22 minutes of news and commercials, compared to a podcast, where a one-minute commercial might play every half hour, Rosenwald said.
“Most people in the business say Rush Limbaugh saved AM radio, and that’s a reasonable claim. But he may have only saved it for a generation,” he said, adding that Limbaugh’s death “imperils” AM radio, but not the type of entertainment and information that Limbaugh delivered.
“AM radio has a real problem, but conservative content and conservative media is going to continue to thrive,” he said. “The content is not going anywhere.”
Correction: A previous version misidentified the WBT host suggested as a replacement for Rush Limbaugh. His name is Brett Winterble, not Brian Winterble.