Arbitron, a company that makes money supplying radio ratings to the industry and its advertisers, notes in a 2008 brochure that “the big picture for radio is its remarkable, enduring reach.” We noted earlier that, since the 1950s, radio's strength in the face of competition from other media has to do with its portability—allowing people to use radio outside the home, where they have had less access to the medium's audiovisual competition. According to Arbitron, listening at home has been on a long-term decline. Whereas in 1986 53 percent of all radio listening (as measured in quarter hours) took place at home, by 2008 that percentage had dropped to 39 percent. Listening to terrestrial radio has become a predominantly “away-from-home” (in cars, at work, on the beach, in the park) activity.
In the brochure, Arbitron adds that “Far more than 90% of all consumers 12+ years old listen to radio each week—a higher penetration than television, magazines, newspapers or the internet."1 But what Arbitron means by “listen" is tuning in at least once for a quarter hour during a week. A tougher gauge of attention to radio is time spent with it. The company acknowledges that the time spent listening iTSL) has gone down. The erosion is greatest overall with teens; in spring 2007, for example, teen boys and girls tuned in thirty and forty-five minutes fewer per week, respectively, compared with spring of 2006. For the entire population, TSL fell thirty minutes per week between spring 2006 and spring 2007.2
Moreover, the number of Americans aged twelve years and older tuning into terrestrial radio on average during a quarter hour has been declining steadily since 2003, with a marked drop in 2008, as Table 11.1 indicates. The decline has been taking place both in home and out of home, as other technologies that carry music—most prominently the internet, the iPod, the mobile phone, and other digital music players—take terrestrial radio's place. As we will see, this drop in audience has profoundly hurt the ability of radio stations to draw advertising revenues.
During the primaries of the 2008 presidential election, conservative talk show radio host Rush Limbaugh urged his primarily Republican listeners to temporarily register as Democrats and vote for Hilary Clinton. Under the assumption of an Obama nomination, the strategy— deemed “Operation Chaos”—aimed to prolong the primaries and divide the Democratic Party. “[Obama] needs to be bloodied up politically since McCain is not going to do it,” said Limbaugh. “The only person that can do it is Hillary, and she can’t do it if she’s not in the race.”
Whether or not Limbaugh was successful in tipping the vote in certain states is debatable, but Limbaugh was undeniably successful in stirring up controversy with his plan, and, as a result, publicity for his media platform, The Rush Limbaugh Show. For Limbaugh, controversy means ratings—a link he is well aware of. Limbaugh has frequently stood at the center of a storm of controversy and reaped the benefits—whether it involves accusing Michael J. Fox of exaggerating his symptoms of Parkinson’s disease for a TV commercial, playing a parody of “Puff the Magic Dragon” entitled “Barack the Magic Negro,” or stating that he hopes Obama fails as a president.
With his provocative polemics, bombastic bravado, and keen sense of showmanship, Limbaugh has crafted a highly profitable program. The show, airing weekdays on nearly 600 AM radio stations, consists of Limbaugh’s monologues inspired by the daily news, call-ins from listeners, and comedy segments. Peaking at 20 million listeners, The Rush Limbaugh Show is by far the most widely listened to radio talk show in the United States, and has been since 1991.With MP3 players siphoning off radio listenership and advertising revenue drying up, media executives take note of successes like Limbaugh and conservative talk radio in general. In 2008, twenty years after the show’s launch, Limbaugh finalized one of the largest deals in radio history by renewing his contract with Clear Channel Communications through 2016, upping his salary to $50 million per year.
While Limbaugh’s antagonistic conservatism may make for good ratings, it may not necessarily make for good politics. Limbaugh’s success has made him a prominent figurehead for an increasingly fragmented Republican party, but his contentious style risks polarizing the electorate and alienating more moderate voters. “If you’re a talk radio host and you have 5 million who listen and there are 50 million people who hate you, you can make a nice living,” said former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. “[But] if you’re a Republican Party, you’re marginalized.”
Frum illustrates the tensions Limbaugh faces as both an entertainer and a political advocate, as well as the ever more blurred boundaries between entertainment and politics. Through The Rush Limbaugh Show, we can see the complicated relationship between the two realms, able to simultaneously feed and undercut one another.
Sources: Perry Bacon, Jr., “GOP Seeks Balance with Conservative Icon Limbaugh,” The Washington Post, March 4, 2009; Paul Far hi, “Rush Limbaugh Signs $400 Million Radio Deal, The Washington Post, July 3, 2008; “Michael J. Fox Fires Back at Critics,” ABC News, October 29,2006. http://abcnews.go.com/ ThisWeek/story?id=2613377&page=l (accessed September 20, 2010); Brian Stelter, “Times Topics: Rush Limbaugh” The New York Times, December 31, 2009. http://topics.nytimes. com/top/reference/timestopics/people/l/rush_limbaughy index.html (accessed September 20, 2010); “US DJ Criticized over Obama Song,” BBC News, May 10, 2007. http://news.bbc co.uk/2/hi/americas/6642029.stm (accessed September 2C 2010).