Rush Limbaugh’s Downward Spiral Continues: Another Demotion, Another Step Toward Irrelevancy
The bad news: The station currently boasts a 0.6 rating, trails four non-commercial stations in the market, and becomes yet another big-city, cellar-dwelling outpost that Limbaugh is forced to call home.
The station, WKOX, is the type of “bottom-rung” affiliate that Limbaugh was rarely associated with during his halcyon days as the king of talk radio. But those days seem to be dwindling as the Boston fall from grace has previously played out for Limbaugh in places like Los Angeles and Indianapolis. In each instance, Limbaugh exited a prosperous, longtime radio home and was forced to settle for an also-ran outlet with miniscule ratings.
Limbaugh’s ongoing major market woes can be traced to his 2012 on-air meltdown over Sandra Fluke, where he castigated and insulted the graduate student for three days on his program, calling her a “slut” and suggesting she post videos of herself having sex on the Internet. (Fluke’s sin in the eyes of Limbaugh was testifying before Congress in favor of contraception mandates for health care insurance.)
The astonishing Limbaugh monologues sparked an unprecedented advertiser exodus, which means selling his show has become a major lift for the affiliate stations that pay a hefty fee for the right to carry his program. The Wall Street Journal reported on the millions of dollars in advertising revenue that Limbaugh’s host stations lose because of the talker’s stigma on Madison Avenue.
The still-unfolding repercussions? Some key stations want out of their Limbaugh deals. And when those deals are up, nobody else is stepping forward to ink new contracts with Rush.
Here’s what happened in Boston, and it’s becoming a trend. In May, WRKO announced it wasn’t renewing Limbaugh’s program, which meant the host would have to find a new home on the dial. No problem, right? Hopping around to another affiliate isn’t that unusual in the world of syndicated radio. What was unusual, at least for Limbaugh, was that not one other Boston station moved to pick up his show. Years ago, general managers lined up for the chance to broadcast Limbaugh’s ratings heavyweight show and jumped whenever it became available in the market.
But no more. With ratings issues in recent years and selling the show to advertisers becoming increasingly difficult, stations seem reluctant to pay a steep price for Limbaugh’s program. (But yes, Limbaugh’s syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks, still pays the talker $50 million a year.)
In Boston, Limbaugh had to once again be bailed out by his corporate bosses. Formerly known as Clear Channel, iHeartMedia owns the syndication company that produces and sells Limbaugh’s radio show. iHeartMedia also owns hundreds of radio stations.
So with no takers in Boston, iHeartMedia turned to its lowly WKOX station, scrubbed its Spanish language format, and will flip it to “Talk 1430” on June 29, where listeners will hear a hodgepodge of far-right talk mixed Fox Sports Radio programming. “With the lack of options for gaining syndication revenue from another broadcaster, dumping the extraneous 1430 format becomes the only clear option for the company,” noted RadioInsight.
And don’t expect Limbaugh to turn things around for WKOX. His show struggled on WRKO, which boasts a 50,000-watt signal. In contrast, WKOX broadcasts from a tiny 5,000-watt signal, which doesn’t even cover the entire Boston metropolitan area.
Does this demotion sound familiar? The same Limbaugh farewell just played out in the red state of Indiana where the talker was dumped by his AM home of 22 years, WIBC in Indianapolis. After WIBC announced the programming divorce (the station was reportedly having trouble finding advertisers for Rush’s show), no other stations in the market stepped forward to buy Limbaugh’s program, which meant he had to be bailed out by iHeartMedia. The radio giant shoehorned Limbaugh onto its lowly rated all-sports channel in the market. (Current rating: 0.5.)
So why the obsession with finding Limbaugh even a low-rent home in places like Boston and Indianapolis? The answer revolves around clearance. “Rush Limbaugh is heard in every measured radio market in America, and that will continue to be the case in Boston,” Premiere’s Rachel Nelson told the Boston Globe last month. In other words, Limbaugh and his syndicator are determined that his show be heard (or cleared, in industry-speak), in every radio market in America–and especially in major markets — no matter what.
“It looks like Premiere parent iHeart will end up doing the same thing in Boston it’s doing in Indianapolis as a last resort: bringing Rush back in house on a marginal signal just to maintain the clearance,” noted NorthEast Radio Watch this week.
That, obviously, is not a blueprint for long-term success.
In terms of trying to sell the show to national advertisers as well as maintaining the Rush reputation as the most powerful talker on the dial, Limbaugh and Premiere simply cannot have Rush’s show off the air in places like Boston and Indianapolis. So Premiere’s parent company is willing do whatever it takes to make room for Limbaugh, even if it means sticking him on a ratings doormat at the far, far end of the radio dial and surrounding him with sports talk shows.
The question now is how many more cracks in the dam is iHeartMedia going to have to plug as more markets decide they’re not interested in Limbaugh’s program?