At TIME Magazine, Brian Rosenwald writes about the severely-diminished career of Rush Limbaugh without ever actually mentioning StopRush or Flush Rush, the netroots phenomena which made the severe decline of conservative hate radio possible. Even though moving him off the public airwaves is a fine goal all by itself, Rosenwald seems to think the probability of Limbaugh eventually leaving commercial radio altogether is a bad thing for the activists because they won’t be able to pressure him anymore.
In fact, the provocative, unpredictable content that produces the best talk radio fits poorly with an advertiser-based business model in the Internet and social media era. This problem may eventually drive the content provided by Limbaugh and his peers to an internet-based subscription platform, where hosts do not have to worry about losing advertisers when they generate controversy.
It might seem that talk-radio’s critics would have won if that happens. But, in reality, they would have won their battle, but lost their war. If critics force the delivery mechanism away from an advertising-based model, their pleas will be less likely to affect talk radio’s bottom line. Subscribers, unlike advertisers, aren’t likely to be swayed by a social-media campaign (after all, they are fans). As such, executives and hosts will be freer to ignore critics, while profiting from giving fans what they want. In the end, talk radio’s content will exist as long as an audience for it exists.
Indeed, Glenn Beck is making bigger bucks with his website than he ever did on Fox News. If he turned to a paid online content model, Limbaugh would probably get richer off the rubes than he ever has before. Howard Stern, another ‘shock jock’ who moved to satellite radio after enduring boycott efforts for many years, can speak to the liberating effects of noncommercial media. But it is unlikely that Rush, who enjoys being on billboards in major cities and used to make or break Republican Party chairmen, would ever agree to be marginalized as an internet crank, however wealthy such a move might make him. He would rather take down the entire talk radio industry with him than see that happen.
Rosenwald does an admirable job recalling Limbaugh’s long career of ‘political shock jock’ awfulness — yes, kids, Rush really did ‘AIDS updates’ in the 1980s — but he has left out important context. For instance, Rosenwald mentions how Limbaugh’s brief turn as a sports commentator at ESPN ended in 2003 when he speculated that black quarterback Donovan McNabb was receiving special treatment because of his race, but then fails to mention that players and coaches combined to nix Limbaugh’s bid for a team ownership stake six years later. The internet and social media existed in 2009; in fact, it was the same year that StopBeck and Color of Change began their successful advertiser disinvestment campaign against Glenn Beck. So why did it take three more years for Limbaugh to feel the heat?
One key difference is that in 2012, Limbaugh attacked Sandra Fluke, a lone young woman who didn’t have an entire sports league behind her. Limbaugh’s three-day tirade was not just vicious and deluded, it was an act of bullying that made thousands of people want to defend her from his intimidation and browbeating. Yet to this day, Rush likes to pretend that he’s the one being bullied:
Which brings us to another key difference between 2012 and 2009: the role of radio advertising specialist and $900/hour PR hack Brian Glicklich, who calls both Beck and Limbaugh close, personal friends. After watching Beck’s television show get cancelled for lack of advertisers, Glicklich fought back against disinvestment efforts in 2012 by attacking Limbaugh’s lost accounts in public.
Limbaugh spokesman Brian Glicklich on Thursday forwarded a copy of an email that he said had been sent to Sleep Train Chief Executive Dale Carlsen. In it, Glicklich wrote that Limbaugh had personally received the company’s requests to resume advertising on his show.
“Unfortunately,” Glicklich wrote, “your public comments were not well received by our audience, and did not accurately portray either Rush Limbaugh’s character or the intent of his remarks. Thus, we regret to inform you that Rush will be unable to endorse Sleep Train in the future.”
Of course, these actions infuriated Limbaugh’s remaining endorsements, who all wanted to at least hear a pro forma apology and assurances of future good behavior before investing any more money in Rush. But Glicklich pushed his friend and meal-ticket to disown any regret, further alienating companies with long relationships to the show. And as activists’ efforts began to bear fruit, another problem emerged: the advertiser purchase system Glicklich had designed for Premiere Radio Networks as their Senior VP of Digital Media was not built to allow purchasers any control over which shows actually aired their ads. It all proved too much for many companies, who pulled their media dollars out of talk radio altogether.
The rest, as they say, is history. Though unremarked by Rosenwald, what’s remarkable about this history isn’t the role of ‘the internet’ or social media per se, but the uncanny timing and direction of Limbaugh’s own efforts to ‘fight back’ against a truly leaderless social media phenomenon that might have faded into obscurity without Glicklich’s help. StopRush and Flush Rush could never have managed their colossal victory if Limbaugh hadn’t employed a helpfully incompetent and dishonest PR professional to do everything wrong for him.
Should that situation end up forcing Rush Limbaugh off the air and onto a podcast, or even destroying conservative hate radio altogether, the activists will be the ones celebrating victory.