IN A STUDIO high above the streets of Manhattan, the overweight, overwrought and overbearing man who rarely pronounces his name without attaching the appellation “America’s most-listened-to talk-show host” is harrumphing into his radio microphone. He’s excited. You can tell by the sound of a piece of paper crumpling and snapping between his hands. He’s reading a news item out of Oshkosh, Wis., about the conviction of a young man who sexually assaulted a mentally disordered woman with 46 personalities. The host is fascinated by the woman’s claim that while one of her more outgoing personalities consented to having sex, she was caused great distress when another of her personalities, a 6-year-old girl, surfaced in the midst of the incident.
This may sound like a shard of bizarre trivia, but America’s most-listened-to talk-show host knows better. So do many of the 1.3 million folks who, according to the Arbitron ratings, are tuned into his show on 294 stations during any given quarter-hour. They are listening to a self-styled commander-in-chief fight his private “culture war” against the many liberal, do-gooder notions that interfere with his right to eat and wear and spend whatever he damn well wants and say whatever he damn well pleases. This Wisconsin case is another example. The whole notion of multiple personalities is so . . . untidy. It is not enough for Rush Limbaugh to broadcast this snippet. He must pass judgment. The fault here, he intones haughtily, the way Solomon might have said it after assertiveness training, was the woman’s. “That 6-year-old is culpable!” he says. If she knew the assault was going on, she should have protested. “Was she too busy eating candy?”
Welcome to a world where Howard Cosell’s voice seems to have been grafted to Pat Buchanan’s brain and amplified through the cracked sensibilities of the Stanford Marching Band. Where news items about homelessness are preceded by Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s rollicking recording of “Ain’t Got No Home,” a ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll hit. Where items on animal rights are preceded by Andy Williams’ “Born Free,” punctuated by the sounds of gunfire and shrieking animals. Where political essays against creatures such as “commie-libs,” “feminazis” and “environmentalist wackos” burst forth without warning, delivered with word-swallowing urgency and enough sarcasm to feed a small country. Where Mario Cuomo, a frequent target, is always referred to as “Koomo"--a racially sensitive deference, Limbaugh explains, to the way Jesse Jackson pronounces the New York governor’s name. Where callers from cellular phones get priority on the show’s call-in line because people with enough money to own car phones compose the only endangered species Limbaugh cares about--rich Republicans. Where items concerning Mikhail Gorbachev are presented as “Gorbasms,” a sarcastic reference to the American public’s adoration of the Soviet president. So devious does Limbaugh consider Gorbachev that he reads these updates, which usually detail new economic chaos in the U.S.S.R., over the blaring section of the “Empire Strikes Back” soundtrack that introduced Darth Vader.
Mister Limbaugh’s neighborhood is the hottest place in talk radio because it is unlike any other spot on the dial, a gag- and bombast-infested, stream-of-consciousness current-events lecture that careens between blood-serious conservative politics and deadpan irreverence. It is a place without any guests, a place where the host is the show, a place where callers play second fiddle, their views meticulously screened to avoid any sluggish or repetitive moments that might bog down the breakneck pace.
The show is so flat-out weird that Limbaugh affably advises new listeners that they’ll require six weeks to understand it. By then, he says, they will be delivered to “the cutting edge of societal evolution.” You will never have to read another newspaper again, he promises, the way a faith healer might. “I will do all your reading, and I will tell you what to think about it.”
Rush Hudson Limbaugh III, who turned 40 two weeks ago, is a booming-voiced, 6-foot-tall, 320-pound man with thinning hair who lives a relatively hermit-like, computer-nerd existence until show time, when he seems to erupt into the mike. There is supreme grace and confidence to this bluster. Yet Limbaugh was a failure through most of his broadcasting life until he did something Americans still do best. He reinvented himself. Uncomfortable with traditional restrictive radio formats, he developed one that fit his quirky, opinionated nature and appealed to many listeners who found conventional talk radio too predictable or ponderous. He’s not the biggest name in talk radio--that title still goes to Larry King, who pooh-poohs Limbaugh’s style as a Reaganesque appeal to “the base element in us.” King is a star on CNN as well as radio--he even made a guest appearance on CBS’ “Murphy Brown” this season--and has significantly more stations than Limbaugh. But King owns the less-listened-to late-night turf. Limbaugh owns the day, and after only 2 1/2 years in national syndication he has developed an audience twice that of King’s or any other nationwide talk show. You can now drive almost anywhere in California--where 22 AM stations broadcast Limbaugh’s five-day-a-week, 9 a.m.-to-noon show--and never be out of earshot.
“Daytime syndicated talk (radio) is not a proven winner, but Rush is different,” says Eric Seidel, manager of WGST in Atlanta, which has been carrying Limbaugh’s show for the past year. “He’s one of the savviest guys in capturing the entertainment value of the medium. What Rush realizes, and what a lot of listeners don’t, is that talk-radio programming is entertainment, it is not journalism.”
Limbaugh first proved this in Sacramento in the mid-1980s, where he was a local hit with the same kind of show. In the spring of 1988, a syndicator discovered him, signed him to a partnership, moved him to Manhattan with a $250,000 annual base salary and launched the 54-station “Excellence in Broadcasting” network that August. They quickly added scores of small markets; then the bigger ones began to come aboard. Last year, Limbaugh made, by his estimate, well over $500,000 and says he’ll hit a million this year. He wallows in it. He flies first class to $15,000-a-pop concert appearances all over the country nearly every weekend, working his rap on adoring crowds of 2,000 to 7,000. He markets concert tapes and T-shirts. He sponsors Caribbean cruises for his most zealous fans. He has emceed an Oliver North benefit roast in Washington. When he took a vacation last summer, his on-air replacement was Rep. Robert Dornan (R-Garden Grove), an ideological twin.
While half of Limbaugh’s audience is over 50--the classic target audience of talk radio--he also draws a substantial number of people in their 30s and 40s who listen while commuting or at work. In Los Angeles, where Limbaugh is heard on all-talk KFI, he loses 2-to-1 in listenership to veteran Michael Jackson on KABC but beats Jackson by about 15% among listeners between 25 and 54. Some of these people listen for the politics. Some listen for the humor. Some listen despite themselves. It is not unusual for a caller to inform Limbaugh that he is a regular listener who disagrees with 90% of the host’s politics. “I think your shtick is better than Pee-wee Herman and Jimmy Swaggart,” a guy from Toledo told Limbaugh recently when he called in. “Only Pee-wee thinks he’s being funny, and Jimmy thinks he’s being serious. I haven’t figured out what you’re trying to do.”
Limbaugh laughed good-naturedly at that one. He maintains that he could not care less that a lot of people are still confused by the program’s cockeyed attitudes. While his conservative views, forged in a family of Republican attorneys in Cape Girardeau, Mo., are deeply held, he never planned on becoming a right-wing icon. His professional universe is show business. The fact that he has become a semi-authorized conservative spokesman--he’s the guy “Nightline” booked last November when it wanted someone to articulate citizen support of mobilization for war with Iraq--is merely a testament to how well Limbaugh packages what he preaches.
“Sixty, maybe 70% of my success is my (conservative) message; I never bargained for that,” he told a concert audience in Long Beach late last year. “I am on the radio for one reason: to attract the largest audience I can and hold it. I am not in a think tank.” Yet he swears he is sincere. He could never pose as a liberal for the sake of ratings, he says. Too much work. Liberals never have a nice day. “They don’t have fun. They’re worried about everything being wrong.”
Limbaugh has admitted this freely on the air countless times. Of course, Limbaugh freely admits just about everything on the air: his divorces (two), his previous firings (way more than two), his weight (a gain of 100 pounds in the past five years), his new home-exercise program (40 minutes on a treadmill at 3.5 m.p.h.), his tendency to perspire heavily, the fact that he hates crowds unless he’s performing in front of them, the fact that he cried in bed the other night watching a tape of “Field of Dreams.”
Yet for all his excesses--indeed, because of them--Limbaugh has sculpted a program that is far more compelling than either the civilized talk-show universe of KABC’s Jackson or the confrontational nether world of “shock radio,” in which audience and guests are routinely assaulted. He brings an almost frightening enthusiasm to the program--a quality that, ironically, makes him seem boorish when he appears on the cooler medium of television. The show reflects not merely Limbaugh’s gotta-keep-busy personality but also his background. He’s a news junkie, a man who overcompensates for being a college dropout by devouring and dissecting all manner of newspapers and magazines--he says he spends three hours reading news and analysis before each day’s show. He’s a radio junkie who started working as a rock ‘n’ roll deejay in the golden, pre-FM days of radio while still a teen-ager and maintains the art of breathlessly pacing a show, cutting from one factlet to another without breaking stride. He’s a political junkie, delighted to interpret everything but the weather in a liberal-versus-conservative context. He’s an attention junkie, a man who looks at his fame with the heartfelt reverence most people reserve for their newborn baby. He’s a control junkie: The show is his, period. Callers who attempt to duplicate the host’s style of ironic humor are reminded never to try it in their homes.
This completes your preparation. You may now listen to the show.
BAM! A FUNKY bass and bluesy guitar, competing with each other, probably an unconscious tribute to social Darwinism, opens the show. Bam! A lisping, stuttering Mike Tyson parody makes it clear that even Rush’s enemies, including “humaniacs” and psychobabblers, are welcome to listen. “And I’m here,” the fake Mike adds, “to make sure nobody kicks your butt.”
Bam! Limbaugh, in his certifiable-radio-personality voice, is on. “Greetings, you people.” He announces that his new accuracy rating is in: He is almost always right 97% of the time, up eight-tenths of a point from the summer. Like many jokes on the show, this does not sound like one. Then he’s almost shouting about a new speech by John Silber, the sometimes-off-the-wall Democratic candidate for governor of Massachusetts. It’s a few days before the November election, which Silber will lose. No matter. Rush has placed him on the cutting edge.
“What do you think of this, folks?” Limbaugh nearly shouts, and gleefully reads Silber’s indictment: “ ‘We have a generation of abused children (raised) by women who have thought that a third-rate day-care center is as good as a first-rate home. . . .’
“I happen to agree,” Limbaugh says. “And you know where that thinking comes from?” Evil intonation: “The feminists. " He kicks his voice into an even more dramatic gear: “The feminist movement, who convinced women that the single best thing they could do for themselves was get out of the house.” Now, faster, with sarcasm: “Don’t stay in the home, don’t be dependent in the home, don’t want men around, don’t like them, don’t like kids, you’re only going to stunt your own growth if you do that.”
Such tidbits are often introduced as “feminist updates,” preceded by a few bars of “Born a Woman,” Sandy Posey’s 1966 pop ballad:
It makes no difference if you’re rich or poor
Or if you’re smart or dumb
A woman’s place in this old world
Is under some man’s thumb
And if you’re born a woman,
You’re born to be hurt . . . .*
“She said hurt, not heard!” Limbaugh often says loudly over that last line, the kind of tongue-in-cheek baiting that is part of a desperate effort to increase the low proportion of women who call the show. He has tried everything, from asking prospective women callers to mail photos of themselves (120 pounds of photos came in) to jokingly asking for calls from women who name their breasts. “The NOW gang” is routinely vilified, and women callers identifying themselves as full-time mothers are given equal billing with Mother Teresa.
Such convictions are occasionally modulated for the sake of business. Until the middle of last year, Limbaugh reveled frequently in acidic “gay community updates,” belittling gay activists for besieging America for a cure for AIDS, a problem that was, to Limbaugh’s mind, entirely of their own making. He became, on occasion, the target of protests by AIDS activists. Now, however, you rarely hear the topic.
“I frankly got tired of being identified as a gay basher,” Limbaugh says wearily one evening as he drives through downtown Los Angeles during a week of promotional broadcasts from KFI. He is steering a Jaguar, on loan from a local dealer, enjoying an aimless drive--west down Wilshire, through Brentwood, back east on Sunset--a pleasure beyond his reach in Manhattan, where he does not own a car. He is not enjoying this public notion that forever plagues him, the idea that he is insensitive. He wishes it would go away. Don’t they understand? The gags come so fast to him, and he hates to repress any of them. Why can’t he have his fun, soaring from one political diatribe to another with as many midstream belly laughs as he can muster? Hey, he asks, didn’t you see the recent essay in Esquire, “The Case Against Sensitivity”? That’s just what he’s been saying on the show for months--that “sensitivity” is the new fascism, that you can no longer make fun of “politically correct” groups. What happened to free speech? Why doesn’t everybody lighten up? Why do liberals assume he’s a racist just because he taunts every black leader from Jesse Jackson to David Dinkins? That doesn’t mean he has anything against blacks, he insists.
You want proof? OK, try this: To prove he is not racist, Rush Limbaugh points out that when he buys Wheaties, he always buys the box with Michael Jordan’s picture on it. Now, if you laughed at that joke, you’ll probably enjoy Limbaugh’s show. If you laughed at that joke and hated yourself for laughing, you may wind up listening to the show anyway. If you didn’t laugh, you and Rush are not made for each other, and you will not buy his defense of the Wheaties joke: “It’s an element of my sense of humor. It’s not intended to lampoon blacks; it’s to lampoon liberals who define liberalism almost as phonily as that.” On the air, no such defenses are given. Every hyperbolic sentence drips with us-against-them sincerity. Limbaugh recently added a new slogan, which he recites every time he believes events have vindicated him. It goes like this: Nyah-nyah, nyah-nyah, NYAH-nyah.
Back to the show. Limbaugh is reading a piece of mail. Electronic mail. Cutting-edge stuff. He gets 75 to 80 letters a day on his home computer through Compuserve, the computer network that lets subscribers communicate through their terminals. He’s reading one from a man complaining about driving behind a car plastered with vegetarian and animal-rights bumper stickers, including one that urges people to spay their pets.
“Reflecting on the latter, Rush,” the letter ends, “wouldn’t it be a lovely idea for the homeless? ‘Spay: There’s not enough homes for all of them.’ ”
Limbaugh chuckles. Homelessness is another battlefront in the culture war. The homeless, he preaches, are primarily addicts and the mentally ill who are being exploited by advocacy groups. The day a funeral was held for national homeless advocate Mitch Snyder, who had committed suicide, Limbaugh sang “Ain’t Got No Home” as a mock Gregorian chant.
The program is jammed with dozens of tidbits like these, fragments that give microcosmic meaning to Limbaugh’s world view. From the Long Island teen-ager calling in to complain that a campus environmental club has banned cans of hair spray (Limbaugh dismisses as alarmist theories on global warming and a thinning ozone layer) to the fact that JFK’s son finally passed his bar exam. (“My theory is that he flunked it twice on purpose to prove that he was just like the common, ordinary guy, gets no special treatment because he’s a Kennedy. Except this time I’m sure they fixed it.”) From the income limits of the new 31% maximum tax rate to the fact that administrators of UC Irvine have been pressured by students to reject a proposed Carl’s Jr. burger stand on campus because of the conservative politics of Carl’s owner, Carl Karcher.
One day, to his surprise, Limbaugh’s staff begins gathering in the studio while he’s on the air. Like everything else, he shares this news with the audience. Then he realizes that the staff is thanking him for an expensive yacht cruise he’d chartered as a thank-you gesture. This was one event he had not talked about. But he will now, on the air.
“For most of my adult life, I have been a near failure. Most of my career has been filled with a lot of promise and a lot of potential, but it has really never come together until I moved to Sacramento and then to New York,” he says, the artificial smugness leaving his voice. “And when it’s new to you, the memory of those 17 years of sweating and striving for it and getting real close and then having to take five, six steps back and start all over again is very present in the front of my mind.”
THE SWEATING WAS never for economic survival. It was for something that seemed almost as important--being noticed. Limbaugh’s father, who died in December, prompting a moving on-the-air tribute from his son, was a lawyer. So is Limbaugh’s grandfather, who was ambassador to India during the Eisenhower Administration and who still practices at age 99. So is his younger brother. So is his uncle, now a Reagan-appointed federal judge.
Young Rusty, however, fell in love with radio while still in elementary school. Anyone who has ever dreamed of performing knows the disease. His dad was part-owner of a radio station. Rusty would listen to KXOK in St. Louis and pretend he was a deejay. He’d tape himself on his parents’ reel-to-reel tape recorder, pretending he was Harry Caray, broadcasting the Cardinal games. By the time he was 16, Rusty was an afternoon Top-40 rock ‘n’ roll deejay at his dad’s station. It was 1967, a glorious musical era, the Beatles and Motown at full strength, and the notion of college could not compete. Limbaugh, with a high draft lottery number sheltering him from the Vietnam War, left Southeast Missouri State University after a semester of lapsed attendance and lousy grades, including an F in a public-speaking course, and took his first full-time Top-40 job in Pittsburgh.
He was fired after a year and a half. He wouldn’t stick to the playlist. “They said I played ‘Under My Thumb’ too many times.”
This was noticed with some distress by his father who, having survived the Depression, had advised his son to kiss each employer’s feet.
“We kept saying you have to be humble. . . . I don’t think he was too good at that,” says Limbaugh’s mother, Mildred, who listens daily to the syndicated show and tapes it when she can’t; occasionally Limbaugh calls her to elicit her opinions and motherly warmth.
Limbaugh found a second radio job in Pittsburgh and was fired when that station was sold. From there, he got another job playing records at a Kansas City station. That ended after three years. By then, his year-and-a-half-long first marriage, to a sales secretary at the Kansas City station, was over.
In 1979, he got out of radio. His roommate, a marketing executive with the Kansas City Royals baseball team, got him a job as the team’s group-sales director. “I saw the world of business,” he says. “I saw how people used radio, after spending all that time behind a glass wall.” But he eventually grew depressed. He’d gotten married again, to a college student who was working as a Royals stadium usher (they would divorce in 1988), and was now making only $18,000. “What do you do best?” a friend asked. “Radio,” he said. Using his voice. This time he’d try adult-format radio--talk--rather than music. A Kansas City station was going all-news. He was hired as a news reader, but he couldn’t keep his opinions out of it. Eventually, he was given two-minute commentaries, but he and management soon parted ways.
It was 1984. Sacramento was the last shot. A consultant Limbaugh knew in Kansas City told him that KFBK, which had just dumped the hyper-acerbic Morton Downey Jr. as its midday talk host, had a slot open. Limbaugh got the job and began to develop his format: music; wacky, sometimes savage, humor and conservative politics in a town thought to be dominated by liberals. Ratings nearly tripled. He became a celebrity. As a commercial spokesman, he endorsed everything from jewelry to rib joints to (naturally) car phones. He became a conservative flag bearer on a local TV news show, appearing in scheduled debates three times a week.
“I knew, in the year I debated with him, it was just a matter of time before he hit the big time,” says David Rosenberg, a Sacramento attorney and Democratic Party activist. “He had the smarts, the showmanship and the drive.”
Ed McLaughlin thought so, too.
McLaughlin had been president of the ABC Radio Network for 14 years before quitting in 1986 to run his own syndication company. In 1988, a friend in the business told him Limbaugh was the greatest thing he’d heard. Ratings in Limbaugh’s slot had tripled.
McLaughlin, a San Francisco native, came to Sacramento to listen. He wasn’t sure he liked it. The guy sounded too pompous, he thought. He gave it another try, this time reminding himself to think as an audience member, not a businessman, and realized he was hooked.
“There’s that direct connection between Rush and the listener,” McLaughlin says now. “I just knew that if I asked somebody what they were listening to, they wouldn’t say KFBK, they’d say ‘I’m listening to Rush Limbaugh.’ They might even have difficulty telling you the station’s call letters.”
In New York, Limbaugh consolidated the call-screening rules that allow the program to sound like what a number of radio consultants have admiringly described as a local show projected across the country. You won’t hear two consecutive calls from the same geographic area. Nor will you hear many of the staples of other right-wing broadcasters. Limbaugh regards them as viruses that kill off the broad audience he craves.
“I don’t want any John Birchers, no one-world-government theories,” he says. “No UFOs, no abortion calls in the context of when life begins, no gun control in the 20-year-old, cliched argument, nothing from people who are going to read anything (on the air), no Bible--faith is a sacred and personal thing. I don’t want devout believers of any religion or cause because they don’t think. I want people who think about things with a passion. And I do not want racists or bigots to feel they have a home on the show. It’s an entertainment show.”
And so it was, in a gesture to his career as an entertainer, that Limbaugh came to Los Angeles for a week in November. Along with doing his daily show from KFI and guesting on other KFI talk-show segments, he met with several television syndication companies, pursuing the seemingly impossible vision of transferring his radio persona to the tube.
On Friday, his last day in town, he was beat. It was the kind of fatigue that makes everything funnier. Limbaugh spent much of the day laughing. He did a condom update about some company offering safe-sex wrapping paper with green and red condoms--real ones--attached. He raged over a faxed newspaper story reporting that construction of a big shopping mall in Texas was being blocked because of the discovery of five cave bugs. He burst into astonished laughter over a Santa Monica company that was offering parents a $325 environmental video featuring Ralphie the Environmental Dog, who teaches children how to avoid wastefulness. With that, Limbaugh ordered up the animal-rights-update theme, and this time, as guns blazed and animals screeched and Andy Williams sang, he shouted over the tumult impatiently: “It’s taking too long to reload in there! You must be prepared! Load those TOW missiles that Ollie North gave us in the Iran deal. . . .”
Like much of life on the cutting edge of societal evolution, it was a joke.
* From “Born a Woman” by Martha Sharp, 1965 and 1966 by Painted Desert Music Corp., New York. Used by permission.