Talk Radio Troubles

The controversy over Rush Limbaugh's venomous attacks on Sandra Fluke appears to have done what a dozen prior Limbaugh controversies could not: affect his bottom line. As John Avlon reports, advertisers are fleeing not only from Limbaugh, but from other hosts like him:

Premiere Networks, which distributes Limbaugh as well as a host of other right-wing talkers, sent an email out to its affiliates early Friday listing 98 large corporations that have requested their ads appear only on "programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial (for example, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity)."

This is big. According to the radio-industry website, which first posted excerpts of the Premiere memo, among the 98 companies that have decided to no longer sponsor these programs are "carmakers (Ford, GM, Toyota), insurance companies (Allstate, Geico, Prudential, State Farm), and restaurants (McDonald's, Subway)." Together, these talk-radio advertising staples represent millions of dollars in revenue.

Avlon gives a good overview of the issues at play here, including talk radio's dependence on old white men, who are not the most desirable audience for advertisers, and the increased speed with which anti-host campaign can ramp up and have an impact. This highlights some essential facts about media in general, but especially about talk radio, the medium on which Republicans built so much of their political project over the last two decades.

Talk radio may have profound political effects, but it is, at bottom, a business. And in that business, listeners are not the customers. Listeners are the product. Advertisers are the customers. Programming is the means of delivering the product to the customers, whether it's music or news, Rush Limbaugh or the local Limbaugh imitator. "Programming," one top Clear Channel executive used to say, "is the shit we run between the commercials."

The people who make decisions in radio are not a courageous bunch. As progressive host Thom Hartmann told me when I interviewed him for a recent piece, "The typical thought that a program director has when they wake up every morning is not, 'How can I transform my radio station into something that is really going to sparkle?' Instead, they wake up every morning thinking, 'How can I avoid getting fired today?'" Rush Limbaugh is on 600 stations because he reliably brought those stations listeners who could be sold to a population of advertisers ready to buy time on his program. As soon as that is no longer the case, stations will start to drop him.

Is that going to happen now? Maybe, maybe not. I've always been a bit ambivalent about advertiser-targeting campaigns; they can be used for good or ill, by people promoting understanding or promoting division. But in the end, companies have choices to make about where they put their advertising dollars, and they must be responsible for those choices. If there were a Puppy Strangling Channel, no one would want to advertise on it, and justifiably so. Rush Limbaugh has been spewing his toxic brew of race-baiting, misogyny, and generalized hate for a couple of decades now, and despite the complaints of liberals, his advertisers— among them some of the most established, well-regarded corporations in America—haven't seen any downside to giving him their money. Now they're paying a little more attention. If Limbaugh wants to make the case to them that his program is just the kind of thing they want their products to be associated with, I'm sure they'd listen. But I doubt they'd be as convinced as they would have been a couple of weeks ago.

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