Rush Limbaugh opened the airwaves to extremist commentary and built an empire

Rush Limbaugh, the conservative media icon who for decades used his perch as the king of talk-radio to shape the politics of both the Republican Party and nation, died after a battle with cancer.

Posted: Feb 17, 2021 1:42 PM
Updated: Feb 19, 2021 10:30 AM


Rush Limbaugh was, without question, the most important figure on American talk radio, probably since Father Charles Coughlin, his most conspicuous predecessor.

Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, was a widely controversial figure who amassed a huge audience in the 1930's by mixing his post-Depression-era radio broadcasts about monetary reform with anti-Communist and anti-Semitic hate speech.

But he was ultimately forced from the air because his views were so impolitic stations eventually could not tolerate them.

Limbaugh was a much more engaging broadcaster, wildly funny at times, a mimic, a deliberate buffoon — an entertainer, for sure. But he was also much luckier than Coughlin.

Limbaugh was able to build a talk-radio empire because, while the audience for a similar kind of bigoted, mean-spirited messaging may have been the same (or even larger) than it was in the 1930's, tolerance for it in the media business was much greater.

In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine had required media platforms to present opposing views on controversial issues they report on. Once it was no longer in place, it meant that Limbaugh could suggest the Obama administration was purposely making America vulnerable to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a consequence for slavery and accuse Michael J. Fox of greatly exaggerating the effects of his Parkinson's disease with impunity. A station no longer needed to air an opposing view. (Later, Limbaugh, as he did in several of his most egregious cases, offered a reluctant-sounding apology to Fox.)

Shock tactics aside, Limbaugh was, unquestionably, a true pioneer. He opened up the talk-radio business to unabashed extreme commentary and it flourished, even as terrestrial radio struggled to survive. In cities all over America, local radio stations found voices that echoed Limbaugh's far-right rants. And his approach made a lot of money for people all over the radio business.

Not as much as he made for himself, but still.

Limbaugh did not hide his desire to get massively rich from pontificating so bombastically on the radio. He signed an eight-year deal worth $400 million in 2008. That's serious money. No wonder he didn't like Democrats talking about wealth inequality. The terms of his next contract, a four-year deal with iHeartRadio announced in 2016, were not disclosed.

Some sponsors were also remarkably tolerant of Limbaugh, most likely because of the ratings he was pulling in. He was occasionally targeted for ad boycotts, but he generally recovered well.

As happened in 2012, when a Georgetown University law student named Sandra Fluke testified in Congress, arguing that insurance companies should cover contraception. Limbaugh went after her with a bazooka.

Limbaugh wanted to know: 'What does it say about the college co-ed [Sandra] Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says she must be paid to have sex?' And went on to refer to her as a 'slut' and a 'prostitute.'

Later he wanted the taxpayers to get something back for their investment. 'If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and, thus, pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I'll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch,' Limbaugh said.

There was a bit of blowback. It included calls for stations to drop the show. Many sponsors quit the show. Limbaugh was apparently concerned, because two days after the initial remarks he apologized — sort of — saying his 'choice of words was not the best, and in an attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir.'

But Limbaugh rebounded. And then, of course, last year President Donald Trump awarded Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom.

Clearly Limbaugh touched a nerve — lots and lots of them. And he moved millions. Partly that was because he was a really talented performer (especially early on, his show was consciously a performance more than a collection of political statements); but it was also because he did more than speak to his listeners. He validated them.

They came to him daily — in cars and on the beach or around the pools at retirement villages. They came to him for entertainment — and affirmation.

Millions of people wanted to know that views that were being disparaged elsewhere as hate-filled or hidebound — like thinking that 'the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons'— were absolutely valid. He made it all fun to kick around on the radio for three hours a day.

But he also created an industry. A vast one. Because he long preceded Donald Trump, he is arguably the figure most responsible for the conservative brand as it exists today.

There is a straight line from conservative talk radio to Fox News, Newsmax, One America News — and a more curved, twisted line to groups that supported Trump so emphatically. Dittoheads, as Limbaugh's audience merrily called themselves, and followers of conservative radio voices all over the country, could easily be seen as forerunners of the Tea Party, MAGA and QAnon.

They loved Rush because he liked the people they liked, and he didn't like the people they didn't like. And they got so many great laughs when he made fun of the latter.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 661673

Reported Deaths: 12573
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion906391639
Lake48389876
Allen35806635
Hamilton32056396
St. Joseph29947512
Elkhart25376414
Vanderburgh21245378
Tippecanoe20000201
Johnson16336359
Porter15957270
Hendricks15813300
Clark11946181
Madison11741316
Vigo11595229
Monroe10328161
Delaware9836179
LaPorte9761196
Howard9055197
Kosciusko8561109
Bartholomew7448147
Warrick7412150
Hancock7404131
Floyd7200169
Wayne6631191
Grant6424157
Morgan6084125
Boone608288
Dubois5903111
Dearborn547067
Cass544399
Marshall5423104
Henry542093
Noble509078
Jackson464566
Shelby460290
Lawrence4180112
Gibson401281
Harrison399663
Clinton395453
Montgomery386783
DeKalb385178
Knox357285
Miami357263
Whitley349136
Huntington343976
Steuben338155
Wabash331176
Putnam329759
Ripley327061
Adams323149
Jasper315943
White297352
Jefferson294873
Daviess285396
Fayette271556
Decatur270888
Greene261280
Posey260831
Wells258274
Scott250350
Clay241044
LaGrange240870
Randolph225576
Spencer217130
Jennings215044
Washington211027
Sullivan203239
Fountain201442
Starke188051
Owen182153
Fulton178237
Jay177728
Carroll176518
Perry173235
Orange171250
Rush164722
Vermillion160442
Franklin159435
Tipton146341
Parke139216
Pike127632
Blackford120627
Pulaski106444
Newton96531
Brown94939
Benton91913
Crawford90613
Martin80114
Warren75814
Switzerland7537
Union67110
Ohio53311
Unassigned0431

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 967422

Reported Deaths: 17297
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1118511208
Cuyahoga954841746
Hamilton73202970
Montgomery47226889
Summit40110957
Butler35435471
Lucas35217765
Stark29301840
Warren22361276
Lorain21952389
Mahoning19402543
Lake18358305
Clermont18327211
Delaware16415135
Licking14939200
Fairfield14491159
Trumbull14283462
Greene13548213
Medina13347219
Clark12223336
Wood11492193
Portage10982160
Allen10762235
Richland10250206
Miami10006190
Muskingum8153130
Columbiana8103182
Pickaway8033101
Tuscarawas8016236
Marion7979137
Wayne7848219
Erie6858184
Ross6123136
Geauga6051128
Hancock5979112
Ashtabula5937145
Scioto5920104
Lawrence523174
Union511252
Darke5025124
Belmont490989
Huron4781117
Jefferson4781108
Sandusky475996
Seneca4652103
Athens463133
Washington460587
Mercer4581101
Auglaize455099
Shelby440769
Knox401186
Putnam3984101
Madison391447
Ashland378495
Fulton377964
Defiance3711102
Brown369042
Crawford356696
Logan353259
Preble352571
Clinton339964
Highland327356
Ottawa322767
Williams301878
Jackson289256
Champaign285846
Guernsey285834
Fayette267844
Perry267543
Morrow259125
Henry245565
Hardin243957
Holmes2430104
Coshocton234547
Van Wert228849
Gallia221346
Adams215532
Pike214928
Wyandot209153
Hocking193549
Carroll180328
Paulding159723
Meigs134837
Noble128542
Monroe116136
Morgan100534
Harrison100432
Vinton76615
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
25° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 16°
Angola
Clear
21° wxIcon
Hi: 34° Lo: 20°
Feels Like: 21°
Huntington
Clear
24° wxIcon
Hi: 38° Lo: 23°
Feels Like: 18°
Fort Wayne
Clear
25° wxIcon
Hi: 39° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 16°
Lima
Partly Cloudy
25° wxIcon
Hi: 40° Lo: 25°
Feels Like: 14°
Breezy, Sunny Tuesday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events