Rush Limbaugh, big money, and Marconi’s old medium
Traditional media, recently declared dead, or at least critically ill in the face of new media’s rising commercial viability, has a pulse after all. Rush Limbaugh’s new contract is a 400 million dollar expression of confidence in traditional media, and such expressions of confidence have been rare in recent years.
But news of Rush Limbaugh’s record-breaking contract has been discussed less in terms of its business significance, which is enormous in the context of a shrinking pie for old media outlets, and more in terms of whether he, or anyone else, should earn so much money. Even a local conservative talk show host in the Limbaugh mode – which reveres capitalism and personal achievement — asked, “how much is enough?”
The Reasonable Reporter must disclose that she is part of the Limbaugh trickle-down economy, having been paid in Limbaugh dollars for at least half of what is becoming a lengthy radio career. It’s often said, and it’s not hyperbole, that Rush Limbaugh saved AM radio. For those in the newstalk arena, it’s not in dispute, and the dollars, if not the politics have flowed to all the personnel of the stations that carry the show, whether or not they appreciate the association. (Many do not appreciate it, and some are even embarrassed by it.)
This is not to say we’d all be flipping burgers if not for Rush. But lots of people have the jobs we have because of who and what he is, and because of what he fashioned from a product that was gasping for air in 1988, in the face of competition from… hmmm… a new medium that had at last realized its commercial viability. FM radio had matured, and after some years as a novelty, had become a mainstream medium, draining the ad dollars away from the AMs. Superior-sounding FM was the new preferred venue for music, effectively placing a pillow over the faces of the top-40 AM powerhouses that had driven the industry for more than two decades. AM radio had to be reinvented as a talk-intensive product.
It’s worth noting that AM radio had already reinvented itself once, becoming almost entirely music-focused – the iPod of its day for a youth market seeking cultural identity — after television stole radio’s place in the family’s living room, replacing it as the preferred venue for drama and comedy.
It may also be important to note that Rush himself often refers to the AM talk product, or at least his portion of it, as if it were not part of the traditional media. And while he’s probably correct from a content perspective, the delivery device is strictly old media.
That brings us to content, which is still king. Rush is discussed primarily in terms of his political persona. His success is partially attributed to his early years as a disc jockey, which gave him added dimension as an entertainer rather than just an analyst of current events. Both are important components of the man who is now a 400-million dollar phenomenon. But neither fully explains his success.
Rush Limbaugh’s success is built on instinct, and the Reasonable Reporter asserts that the conservative content initially mattered mostly because the time was right for it. As heartfelt as his politics might be, everything about the Rush Limbaugh empire points to his instinct for the right move at the right moment, and for pressing the advantage when he’s gotten it.
The instinct plays itself out in his daily execution of the material, irrespective of the politics. He could be discussing cake recipes, and he would still have to locate the bull’s eye, topically speaking.
The instinct is larger, though, than what he says and how he says it. The instinct is manifest in his syndication model, and in the many ways he’s extended the product, including the early embrace of newsletters and podcasting. The instinct is manifest not just in the what, but the when and how, and how much.
But listen to the public discussion, from callers to the lofty desk of C-Span’s “Washington Journal” to the local talk radio station.
Adoration: He’s wonderful and he deserves the money. Excoriation: He’s a horrible hate monger who’s divided the country and it’s appalling that he’s rewarded in this way. We love him. We hate him. But by and large, we fail to explain what he really is.
Traditional media is shrinking at an alarming rate as the new media mature. The layoffs and contract buyouts are in progress. The newspaper is tiny. It has no heft as it hits the porch. Network television relies almost entirely on low-budget mindlessness. The iPod is the new radio. Minus the people who produce radio.
And yet, as the audience fragments, and the advertising money scatters in new directions, AM radio fares generally better than its battered counterparts, and a 400 million-dollar gesture of confidence has been made. It’s confidence in Marconi’s old medium, but only indirectly.Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized