While Limbaugh Sheds Advertisers, Taxpayers Pay to Broadcast His Toxic Sludge to the Troops

Rush Limbaugh's defiant, halfhearted apology didn't convince anyone that he'd mended his ways.

As of Tuesday evening, Limbaugh's program had shed 35 advertisers, according to ThinkProgress. The count includes AOL, Sears, Allstate Insurance, Geico, and John Deere. As advertisers increasingly respond to pressure, online and off, from angry customers, other activists are turning their anger directly against the radio outlets that broadcast Limbaugh's show.

So far this week, two stations have dropped the program. WBEC in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and KPUA in Hilo, Hawaii, were the first, and if the pressure continues, they may not be the last. WBEC's general manager, Peter Barry, said in a statement, “The nature of Rush's programming has always presented challenges for us and he's always pushed the envelope. But this time he's taken it too far."

Iraq war veterans Miranda Norman, Kayla Williams and Robin Eckstein, and Katherine Scheirman, the former chief of medical operations for the U.S. Air Force, all with the organization VoteVets, released a statement calling for Limbaugh's show to be removed from taxpayer-funded American Forces Network, which is heard by troops serving overseas. They wrote:

Rush Limbaugh has a freedom of speech and can say what he wants, but in light of his horribly misogynistic comments, American Forces Radio should no longer give him a platform. Our entire military depends on troops respecting each other – women and men. There simply can be no place on military airwaves for sentiments that would undermine that respect. When many of our female troops use birth control, for Limbaugh to say they are “sluts” and “prostitutes” is beyond the pale. It isn’t just disrespectful to our women serving our country, but it’s language that goes against everything that makes our military work. Again, we swore to uphold our Constitution, including the freedom of speech, and would not take that away from anyone – even Limbaugh. But that does not mean AFN should broadcast him. In fact, it shouldn’t.

The Pentagon, though, doesn't seem interested in dropping Limbaugh yet. A spokesman told the AP it would continue to air a variety of programming. But VoteVets has a petition to remove Rush, and other sites have more information on who to contact to stop spending taxpayer dollars on Limbaugh.

But the real test is how Clear Channel, the mega-conglomerate that distributes Limbaugh's show, will react. A petitioner at MoveOn's SignOn.org Web site is asking for Clear Channel to drop Limbaugh's show, and 200,939 people had signed it as of press time. Curt Hopkins at the Christian Science Monitor pointed out that, “unlike Limbaugh, the San Antonio-based company has quarterly revenue targets to meet and has to be concerned about the immediate reaction of shareholders. Clear Channel operates 866 stations in 150 markets in the United States.”

Clear Channel has been the largest owner of radio stations in the U.S. since telecom ownership rules were relaxed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The company has faced charges of censorship, and has consolidated its hold over radio in part by getting rid of local hosts and programs and syndicating national shows instead. It was bought out in 2008 and taken private by Bain Capital (founded by presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who still rakes in the cash from Bain and who has remained mostly quiet on the Limbaugh issue) and Thomas H. Lee Partners.

Limbaugh's 2008 contract with Clear Channel goes through 2016, and was worth $400 million in total. Limbaugh broadcasts his show from a 24,000-square-foot mansion in Florida, and has a private jet that alone is worth $54 million.

Premiere Networks, the subsidiary of Clear Channel that distributes shows like Limbaugh's, makes money not only from advertisers, but from the stations that pay to play its programs. A Daily Kos blogger, giving instructions on how to take action against Limbaugh at local radio stations, pointed out that Limbaugh's show is probably the most expensive program the station carries. The combination of advertisers dropping out and stations ditching Rush might be enough to spur the parent company into action.

Or maybe not.

"As long as the Limbaugh show maintains its ratings and notoriety, there will be advertisers eager to utilize it," Michael Harrison, publisher of the talk radio trade magazine, Talkers, told the Christian Science Monitor. “I would imagine Clear Channel is already picking up new sponsors to replace the ones that have publicly defected and I wouldn't be surprised if some of those that have canceled come back after the dust has settled....The American advertising industry is not necessarily known for its taste or dignity.”

As if to prove Harrison's point, one advertiser sent out a press release on Tuesday defending Limbaugh's “free speech,” and declaring that it would begin airing radio spots during Rush's show. That advertiser describes itself in the press release as “the world’s largest sugar daddy and sugar baby dating Web site.”

Even if more stations do ditch Limbaugh, it's important to remember that there are thousands of proto-Rushes waiting in the wings around the country. Brett Banditelli, producer of labor radio program "The Rick Smith Show," told AlterNet, “The endgame for Rush can't be the same endgame we had for Glenn Beck.”

“In almost every market, regardless of size, there's a local right-wing talk show who's been pushing the extreme agenda for decades,” Banditelli continued. “The right got it. They realized it was a venue they could control. And they did. With us finally waking up to Rush we need to wake up to the entire strategy and look at our resources and say do we want to hurt Rush, or do we want to build our own system?”

Progressives haven't had the luck with talk radio that the right has had, with the collapse of the Air America network in 2010, but Thom Hartmann has found success, and with the addition of radio talkers Bill Press and Stephanie Miller to Current TV's television lineup, there are hosts who could bring a left-of-center viewpoint with a national outlook to syndication. And there are thousands of independent programs that could use a larger audience and more support.

Whether Rush stays on air or not, progressives would do well to put some effort into helping build an alternative structure. Without better hosts, the space Limbaugh vacates will just be filled by another right-wing blowhard. 

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