Rush Limbaugh is finished

With or without Cumulus, his political power is much diminished. But the radio king can still do some damage

By Alex Pareene
Published July 29, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

Cumulus Media, the second-largest broadcast radio station owner in the country, may drop Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity from its stations, according to Politico's Dylan Byers. Limbaugh and Hannity are the two highest-rated right-wing talk radio hosts in the country. Byers says they currently air on "more than 40" Cumulus-owned channels (in markets that include New York City). Limbaugh is highly rated but maybe not that profitable, especially since the boycott took off.

This would be something of a blow to Limbaugh, especially if it meant losing his "flagship" station, New York's WABC. On the other hand, the show is syndicated by a company owned by the largest owner of radio stations in the country. They'll likely be able to find a home for him in the most of the markets he'd lose if Cumulus ended his contract.

Of course, while Byers reports that Cumulus has decided not to renew Rush Limbaugh's contract, reports today describe Limbaugh as ditching Cumulus for WOR, a company owned by Clear Channel.

Whether Limbaugh ends up parting ways with Cumulus or whether this entire Politico article is part of one side's negotiating tactics almost makes no difference. Limbaugh will remain on the radio in most of the country, with millions of listeners. In a month he may still announce that his contract with Cumulus has been renewed. But however this shakes out, it will still be the case that the Limbaugh Era is over.

The Limbaugh Era spanned roughly Clinton's inaugural through Bush's reelection, with his powers peaking, obviously, at Clinton's impeachment. This was when Limbaugh could create political stars, sink legislation and nearly take down a president. The mainstream press took notice of him and then became completely obsessed. At that time, his army of listeners was enough people to constitute a formidable electoral coalition.

He still has a lot of listeners. The Limbaugh problem, though, is simply a reflection of the GOP problem: His followers are an aging and, consequently, shrinking group of conservative white people, in a country that is rapidly getting less white. The Limbaugh people are still large in number, but their power is diminishing. (Their power has been diminishing for years, in fact, which is how Limbaugh and his less talented peers came to lead them in the first place.)

The first thing to remember is that no one actually has any clue how many people listen to Limbaugh with any regularity. Limbaugh's audience certainly sounds massive at 14 million weekly listeners, but that supposedly represents any person who tunes into Limbaugh's show for any period of time over the course of a week. At any given period in his show, though, an average of three million people are tuned to Limbaugh. That's not nothing, but it's close. It wouldn't crack the top 25 broadcast TV shows. And radio ratings involve even more guesswork and estimation (and spin) than television ratings. Limbaugh said his audience was "20 million" 20 years ago and people have just been repeating that number ever since, but no one actually has any clue.

Regardless of its size, this audience is not being replenished with fresh blood. When the Obama people decided, early in his first term, to basically call as much attention to Limbaugh as possible, as part of an effort to make him seem like the unofficial leader of the modern Republican Party, that was because they knew that Limbaugh is among the least popular human beings in the country, especially with people below the age of 40. The strategy did briefly shove Limbaugh back into relevance, but what exactly did he accomplish with that relevance? After an election year in which he openly, depressingly begged for Hillary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination, simply so that he could relive his glory years of Clinton-hating, Limbaugh spent the first months of Obama's presidency attempting to derail the stimulus for some reason, and he failed. The Tea Party freakout, and subsequently the 2010 elections, had nothing to do with Rush. He hated Romney during the 2012 primaries and his eventual awkward support for the Republican nominee was worth nothing.

Like Matt Drudge, who still drives traffic but not the news cycle itself, Limbaugh is a relic of the '90s. He's been finished for years. Unfortunately he and the dying conservative movement are going to do their best to destroy the country as it leaves them behind.

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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