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Rush Limbaugh Becomes Talk Radio’s #1 Star; the “Tea Bag” Rebellion Becomes Its First Big Victory

This is excerpt No. 28 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

A key element of Rush Limbaugh’s rise to stardom lay in his background as a disc jockey – an entertainer.  We look at that and the other reasons he has been the Big Enchilada of talk radio ever since he launched his Rush Limbaugh TV Shownational show in the summer of 1988.

The “tea bag” rebellion of 1988-89 demonstrated the clout also available to talk radio hosts whose names were not Limbaugh, and whose audiences – while much smaller than Limbaugh’s – were still considerable.  They had audiences larger than virtually any print journalist.  The 1990s would now usher in a golden age of talk radio, thanks to all of these hosts and their relentless work for patriotic and conservative causes. 

Rusty Sharpe quickly becomes talk-radio’s top star

When the Fairness Doctrine bit the dust in 1987, radio broadcast officials sighed in relief but few people in or out of the industry expected the revolution that quickly ensued.  After all, the big action – including soap operas and variety shows – had long since shifted from radio to TV, with daytime radio now dominated by thousands of local disc jockeys interrupted occasionally by network news reports.  In an effort to cut personnel costs, local stations ran nationwide shows at night and on weekends, when the radio audience was much smaller.  A hit nationwide daytime show was not on anyone’s horizon.  The mantra for daytime radio was “local, local, local.”

A former ABC network executive named Ed McLaughlin saw opportunity, however, where others saw only ratings and financial disaster.  He found his on-air vehicle in DJ Rusty Sharpe, and within two years Rusty had become a nationwide sensation and would soon be credited with “saving daytime radio.”

“Who the hell is Rusty Sharpe?” you ask, incredulously.  “I’ve never heard of him.”

Oops.  We forgot to mention that he changed his on-air name to Jeff Christie.

“Whoooo?” you repeat.

Enough already.  We’ve been teasing you, using the former DJ names of the man whose real name is Rush Limbaugh.

The tease has a purpose, though, because a key element of Rush Limbaugh’s rise to stardom lay in his background as a disc jockey – an entertainer.  After he demonstrated the potential of talk radio for conservative commentators, scores of other conservatives would make it big too, enjoying audiences larger than virtually any print journalist.  But none of them came anywhere close to his audience size.  Rush the DJ, Rush the entertainer, has been the Big Enchilada of talk radio ever since he launched his national show in the summer of 1988.

Limbaugh himself understands the keys to his success quite well.  In a 1990 interview with Talkers Magazine, the talk-format trade publication, he explained that “being a DJ teaches you the elements of broadcasting that are crucial, no matter what kind of show you’re doing – timing, brevity, quickness, get in and get out.  It just gives you the basic fundamentals of broadcasting that you need.”  And he confessed to Radio & Records:  “A turning point in my career came when I realized that the sole purpose for all of us in radio is to sell advertising.  I used to think radio was for me to become a star and get my ego thrills.  I wasn’t listener-oriented, I was me-oriented.  As I got a little older, I realized the key to my success was making the audience want to listen to me.”

“I don’t have a high-brow attitude,” Limbaugh told Newsday’s Paul Colford.  “I have always as a broadcaster felt that a cheap and easy way to get an audience’s attention is to say ‘f--k.’  I’ve desired a long-term career, one that is cycle-proof.  Now, we’re seeing the combative cycle in talk radio, while I strive for a good, entertaining program that has controversy without spitting on people.”  Or, as he told Talkers Magazine: “You’ll have no problem as a talk show host being controversial and hosting a controversial show as long as the controversy comes from the substance of the discussion, not the behavior of the host.”

A choice example of Limbaugh’s sense of humor came in December 1989 when he called for a halt to women “farding in their cars” because “farding on the highway is very dangerous, as well as offensive to others.”  The general manager of the broadcast studio panicked and pulled the show off the air until he consulted a dictionary and learned that to fard means to paint with cosmetics.

Add to that sense of humor, good judgment about the types of stories that will interest your audience – and passion.  Here’s how he described that process to Talkers Magazine:

My show is totally what’s on the front page of the newspaper first, and then whatever is interesting to me…. Even if it’s not interesting to them [his audience], it’s up to me to make it interesting.  If I’m passionate about something – there’s something magnetic about passion.  You listen to a guy talking about how much he loves bowling.  If it’s with passion, you listen.  You’re fascinated by, not so much the content, but the emotion that gets involved.  I have a lot of people say, “Well, Rush, when are you gonna tell us about the S&L scandal?”  I’ll tell you about the S&L scandal when it becomes interesting to me…. I think the key is knowing when you shouldn’t talk about something…. My philosophy is I’m here to acquire an audience.  I’m not here to serve any public affairs requirements.

That perceptive attitude explains why even most liberals who hate his politics enjoy his show, and why top broadcasting professionals like Ted Koppel and Tim Russert count themselves as Limbaugh fans.  You can’t win them all, of course, so you had NBC’s John Chancellor sniffing in 1992 about how it “was not a good year for the mainstream political press” but a very good year for “Rush Limbaugh and dozens of others who would be in no way be called members of the mainstream political press.”

Arching his elitist nose ever upward, Chancellor found it rather disgusting that presidential candidates were now catering to “talk-show America” and its “world of communication with ordinary folks…without the intermediation of professional political journalists.  I think ordinary folks are wonderful, the salt of the earth [sure, sure, John – in their place, right?], but ordinary folks are not trained to conduct a serious dialogue with presidential candidates.”

Rush Limbaugh – even a top comic writer like P.J. O’Rourke – would be hard put to create a caricature of liberal elitism as damning as John Chancellor did with that unintentionally revealing true confession.

The 1990s as the golden age of talk radio

Two events in the late 1980s foreshadowed the pivotal role talk radio would play in American politics during the 1990s.  The first was Rush Limbaugh’s rush to the top of the mountain in talk ratings, creating a massive audience unlike any that had existed before.  The other was the “tea bag” rebellion of 1988-89, which demonstrated the clout simultaneously available to talk radio hosts whose names were not Limbaugh, and whose audiences – while much smaller than Limbaugh’s – were still considerable.

In 1988 the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives voted to increase their salaries by 51 percent, from $89,500 to $135,000.  On December 14, an irate citizen – Tony from Roseville, Michigan – called talk host Roy Fox of Detroit’s WXYT to suggest that voters send tea bags to Washington “and attach a little message to the end of the string that says ‘No pay increase.’”  Here’s what happened next, in the words of Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz in his book Hot Air: All Talk, All the Time:

“I thought it was a moronic idea,” Fox says.  But the next day, after realizing that the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party was approaching, he urged listeners to join a tea-bag protest.  Mary Fox, his wife and producer, lined up a dozen other talk show hosts around the country.  Fax machines were just coming into widespread use, which simplified the task.  Jerry Williams in Boston and Mike Siegel in Seattle joined the effort, as did deejays in Washington, Los Angeles, Cleveland, San Antonio, Des Moines, and West Palm Beach.  They interviewed each other on the air and trumpeted the protest.  They joined forces with Ralph Nader and the National Taxpayers Union, which established a Washington post office box for the tea bags.  When congressional Democrats held their annual retreat at the Greenbriar in West Virginia, Roy Fox gave out the hotel’s fax number over the air.  Greenbriar officials were so inundated with faxed protests that they had to shut down their machines.

“What really surprised me was how little it took to turn the tide,” Fox says.  “It just shows how little impact there is from the public.”

Within weeks, organizers were dumping 160,000 tea bags in front of the White House.  The tea-bag revolt sparked so much adverse publicity that Congress withdrew the pay raise.  “The talk show hosts and Ralph Nader won this round at the expense of the long-term interests of the country,” fumed Tony Coelho, the House Democratic whip.

Talk host Roy Fox had put his finger on a key element behind the success of this protest: the lack of input from the American public on most issues before Congress.  Most members of Congress understandably would prefer to reign without having to worry about what the peasants want or don’t want.  But direct mail had already changed that game, and now talk radio was getting into the act.  The difference was timing.  While it takes weeks to get a mail campaign going, radio could do the job in a matter of hours or days.

America’s Right Turn serialization:

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  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
  22. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement”
  23.  “Morton Blackwell Trains Tomorrow’s Conservative Cadre”
  24.  “From FDR to Rush Limbaugh: The Talk Radio Revolution
  25. “Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  26. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  27. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
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