Radio lost its most successful star Wednesday with the death of Rush Limbaugh, 70, who died from complications of lung cancer after decades of smoking cigars. Typically, Limbaugh denied that connection, saying smoking wasn’t any more dangerous than eating too many carrots. But cancer finally did what carrots and an opioid addiction failed to accomplish.
That was typical Limbaugh logic: always heavy on personal views and light on facts. The audience loved it.
A high school graduate who dropped out of college in his second year, Limbaugh became the biggest talk radio star on the air and, schooling aside, he could talk the ears off a jackrabbit, even when the jackrabbit was a powerful politician, high-level clergyperson, foreign dignitary, or cocky caller to the show who mistakenly believed he could change Limbaugh’s mind about anything.
For 33 years, Limbaugh presided over a daily broadcast on almost 600 stations, reaching an estimated audience of 15.5 million. In all those years, Limbaugh fought hard for more sexism, racism, homophobia, Middle East wars, and, when Donald Trump couldn’t get the funding for his wall, a total Mexican border closure. Limbaugh advocated for the criminalization of abortions (accessed, in his view, only by “sluts”), and most recently he preached that COVID-19 was just a “common cold.”
Limbaugh once asked a Black caller he claimed not to understand to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back.” Women seeking equality were called “feminazis,” and political views approaching the center, let alone the left, were hopelessly condemned to unequaled insult and attack.
All this made Limbaugh one of the most successful — if not the ultimate — on-air icon in radio history. He reportedly made $85 million a year.
He was not a gracious person; he didn’t feel the need to be. Once when I was broadcasting from ABC in New York, which was his base, I went to his office and asked if he would come down to my studio any time during my three-hour shift and say hello to the folks in my Rhode Island audience, who were huge fans. He gave me several weak excuses and finally refused, saying he just couldn’t manage a few minutes from his schedule.
I started to laugh, and he asked me what I was laughing at. I said, “Rush, you are syndicated on 600 stations. I am broadcasting from a hole in the ground in Rhode Island which runs your show, and you can’t give me three minutes of your time! That is laughable!”
That’s who he was, and especially because I was what he called a “feminazi.”
Those who know how insecure careers in broadcasting usually are will especially appreciate what Limbaugh created and now leaves behind. It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, will take over his mike and try to beat the historic tenure and earnings records Limbaugh broke.
Sadly for those who loved Rush, there is always the reality of radio, where audiences, within weeks of the disappearance of a personality they thought they could not live without, will have forgotten his name or what they used to think he stood for. In the world of broadcasting, “Rush who?” will be on the lips of many just like, “Whatever happened to Imus?” or “Where’s Dr. Laura?” Let’s hope he enjoyed his fame while he had it.
Mary Ann Sorrentino is a freelance columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.