Like an actor forgetting his lines, a singer fudging her lyrics, a blank TV screen or a URL that displays "This site is temporarily unavailable," silence on the radio is anathema. Dead air is a sign that something's gone terribly wrong.
We know what's gone wrong with The Rush Limbaugh Show, and now the sound of silence adds another twist to the tale. Today the Hollywood Reporter announced to the world "'Rush Limbaugh Show' Broadcasts Five Minutes of Dead Air as Sponsors Continue to Flee." From their article:
The dead airtime was spread out over four instances during the three-hour broadcast. WABC 770 AM in New York was silent for two and a half minutes before the show, save for one ad, then again near the end of the show's first hour. Hours two and three each contained one minute of silence each, reports Think Progress.
A station representative did not specify whether the silence was due to lost advertisers or a technical problem.
Of the 86 ads that were aired, 77 were unpaid public service announcements from the Ad Council, and seven were from sponsors which were in the process of removing support from the show. Only two ads were from sponsors which have not indicated they would leave, reports Media Matters.
Apparently Sleep Train -- an advertiser that dropped the show early on -- asked to come back on, but Limbaugh refused. Honestly, he can't afford such a display of pride and stubbornness. He's taken a huge hit.
Yesterday the Hollywood Reporter tallied up the count: "49 Strong: Rush Limbaugh's Advertiser Exodus Over Sandra Fluke Controversy Continues." True to form, he blustered past these insignificant developments:
Limbaugh has played down the losses, saying he has some 18,000 local and national advertisers and calling the exits "losing a couple of french fries in the container when it's delivered to you at the drive thru."
Not quite. If you frequent fast food establishments, you know the difference between KFC's potato wedges and McDonald's slender-cut fries. Lose a potato wedge and it hurts. National advertisers like JC Penney, Netflix, Capitol One, AOL and Sears are potato wedges. In comparison, one of those advertisers from the 600 local stations broadcasting his show -- let's say Al's Auto Body or Kingston Rock 'N Bowl -- is literally a small fry. If a local radio sales team can sell time on Rush Limbaugh's show to 30 advertisers in each market, that's 18,000 small fries. But they can't fill the emptiness left behind by the absent major players.
The combination of both big fries and small have made Limbaugh unbelievably wealthy. In 2008, for the first time ever, Limbaugh allowed a journalist into his home in Palm Beach, Florida. Writing for the New York Times, Zev Chafets observed:
The place, largely designed by Limbaugh himself, reflects the things and places he has seen and admired. The massive chandelier in the dining room, for example, is a replica of the one that hung in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York. The gleaming cherry-wood floors are dotted with hand-woven oriental carpets. A life-size oil portrait of El Rushbo, as he often calls himself on the air, hangs on the wall of the main staircase.
Chafets also made a point of explaining how a good portion of that wealth was acquired by examining the ratio of advertising to content on his show. This may account for the infamous five minutes of dead air on Thursday:
The average AM radio station reserves 18 to 20 minutes each hour for advertising, devotes about 5 minutes an hour to news and spends the rest of the time on other content. Limbaugh is not only paid by the stations, but his program also owns five minutes of every hour of airtime, which it can then sell to advertisers.
Like the missing minutes of Nixon's famous Watergate tapes, silence can be incriminating when we expect to hear something that isn't there.
Fans of El Rushbo who believe he's all about the politics he preaches may be surprised and disappointed by what their hero acknowledged during the NY Times interview:
"Do you know what bought me all this?" he asked, waving his hand in the general direction of his prosperity. "Not my political ideas. Conservatism didn't buy this house. First and foremost I'm a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates. I happen to have great entertainment skills, but that enables me to sell airtime."
So don't let talk of french fries and Limbaugh's own words dissuade you from the reality that he stays on the air only if he's profitable. His true passion for politics is as deep as a dollar bill as illustrated by the following: in early summer 2008 it was already apparent John McCain would be heading up the GOP presidential ticket -- a fact that prompted Chafets' visit to Palm Beach:
I had come to talk to Limbaugh about his role in Republican Party politics. During the primaries he assailed John McCain as a phony conservative and apostate Reaganite. Despite Limbaugh's best efforts, it now appeared that the Arizona senator would be the nominee. There was speculation that Limbaugh would not support him in November.
"I've never even met the man, never spoken to him," Limbaugh said.
A so-called Republican power broker who had never bothered to meet the GOP presidential candidate -- a long-time Washington political player -- as late as July 2008, four months before the election?Doesn't that seem odd?
That's because he's not fundamentally interested in politics. He sees it only as a means to an end -- to make as much money as possible.
In light of all this, one has to question Limbaugh's sincerity. Not in his apology to Sandra Fluke for his demeaning comments about her, but in his pledge to his audience about what his show is about. From the March 5, 2012 transcript of his show:
For me, this program is always about you. You talk to anybody that knows me who asks me about this program, and I always say, "It's all for the audience," because if you're not there, all the rest of this is academic. This show is about you. It's not about the advertisers. I knew the political inclinations of these people. They didn't care when they were profiting -- and I didn't, either. Everybody's able to put these things aside for the sake of mutual beneficial business activity. No radio broadcast will succeed by putting business ahead of the needs of its loyal audience, and that audience is you. My success has come from you. My focus has always been, and always will be, on you.
He said it himself to the NYTimes: "First and foremost, I'm a businessman." He cares if he's profiting. And that's about all he cares about. Dead air means no money coming in. If this continues, will he? Will he ultimately be done in not by his bombastic attacks, but by the sound of silence?