Politics & Policy

Why Rush Wins

It's not terribly complicated.

I have a story in the current issue of National Review about the debate over re-imposing the Fairness Doctrine. Among the people I talked to for the piece was Rush Limbaugh, whose success is sometimes attributed, in part, to the abolition of the Doctrine in 1987. We talked about his years in radio before that time, when he, like other broadcasters, had to steer clear of controversial issues, lest he run afoul of the Doctrine.

“My first job was in 1967,” Limbaugh told me. “Every station I worked at from that point forward up until the Doctrine was repealed lived with the realization that there were to be no controversial remarks made, because they didn’t want to deal with nagging complaints from the community about equal time.”

That was then. Now, Democrats like Sens. Richard Durbin and John Kerry are trying to reinstate the Doctrine. After 20 years of conservative success on radio, they have apparently despaired of ever winning in the marketplace, so they hope to regulate their way to victory.

But the question that Durbin, Kerry, and other Democrats haven’t been able to answer is why Limbaugh rules the talk-radio airwaves. More specifically: Why has there never been a liberal Rush? That wasn’t the point of the NR story — instead, I wanted to give readers a sense of what broadcasting was like in the days of the Doctrine, and what it might be like if it were reinstated — but some things Limbaugh said during our interview offered an answer to the question.

There are plenty of theories to explain his success, along with that of other conservatives who have followed in his footsteps. Some on the right argue that conservative ideas are simply superior, so they attract a larger audience. Others explain that the liberal audience has more listening choices — NPR, urban radio — so they never rallied ‘round a liberal Rush. And now, the Center for American Progress — the liberal think tank run by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta — has come up with a new explanation: corporate ownership. Big companies like Clear Channel, the Center says, own too many stations, on which they broadcast too much conservative talk. If station ownership were more diverse, the theory goes, there would be more liberals on the air, so the Center wants the government to force Clear Channel and others to downsize themselves to give liberal talkers a chance.

But maybe it’s not that complicated. Maybe there is another, simpler, explanation of why there is no liberal Rush. Maybe the answer is this: Talk radio is radio, and Limbaugh knows more about radio than all his would-be replacements on the Left. He’s just better at it than they are.

What motivates him came through in our discussion of his years on the air before the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. When he told of being ordered by station management not to discuss controversial topics — pretty much standard procedure at the time — it was clear how frustrating he found the situation. But his frustration seemed to come not so much from being forbidden to discuss politics on the air as from being forbidden from discussing anything interesting on the air.

“The real practical effect of the Fairness Doctrine was to shut down all controversial programming, because management would not deal with complaints,” Limbaugh told me. “So when you did listen to talk shows on the radio, they were dull and boring and horrible.”

Of course, Limbaugh did occasionally have his troubles with the Doctrine and sometimes found himself forced to share the air with community leaders who objected to something he had said. That made him unhappy, but not because he was opposed to differing viewpoints. It was because he was opposed to bad radio. “The problem with that is that radio is a business,” he explained. “You bring in people who are not broadcast professionals and give them unchallenged time…You try to make it as stimulating as possible, but…” Well, it wasn’t very stimulating.

You could almost hear Limbaugh’s teeth grinding as he discussed putting on a program that was “dull and boring and horrible.” He just can’t do it. And that is why Rush is Rush. He is deeply, deeply offended by the prospect of boring his listeners. And he has worked for years to develop his rather remarkable talent of keeping them interested for three hours a day, five days a week — all by himself.

The bottom line isn’t really about politics. It’s about radio. If Limbaugh were a liberal, we’d probably be talking about why liberals dominate talk radio. So you can talk about ownership and diversity all you want. But the bottom line is that Limbaugh simply knows radio, and what works on radio, better than anyone else in the world. That’s why he wins.

– Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President — and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time. A shorter version of this piece appears in The Hill.

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