Rush Limbaugh’s passing and speaking ill of the dead

Rush Limbaugh, circa 1992, in his studio at ABC Radio in New York (mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)

I wasn’t sad about the passing of Rush Limbaugh. Those who followed him, either on the air or from a distance, including a repulsed distance, knew it was coming. Stage 4 cancer has a way of doing that.

Instead, when I heard the news, my first thought was, “God, I hope people don’t go down that road…” But they did. You didn’t have to look far on social media to find it, the “good riddance, rot in hell” kind of road. Such vituperative denunciations are far more sorrowful than his death.

And please, don’t pretend for a minute the same thing doesn’t happen on the conservative side of the ledger. (Recall the jubilation on various conservative sites when John McCain died.) Some of us are just plain ugly. Some of us just can’t help filtering everything through a political lens.

As a longtime radio broadcaster, my lens is different. My political differences with Rush are vast and while I do not mourn his passing, I have no trouble acknowledging his equally vast historical impact. Rush was successful and influential in large part because he was a consummate broadcaster. He knew how to do radio. Most of us who’ve worked in this business know that and readily accept it regardless of political stripe.

My connection to Rush, though hardly close, is twofold: first, having logged many hours as a talk radio host on Sacramento’s KFBK, the station from which he jumped (before my arrival there) to launch his national career, and prior; having worked somewhat informally with him during my years in New York radio.

Owned by Disney at the time, the early 1990s, Rush was broadcasting at WABC, an AM, and through a door on the 17th floor of Two Penn Plaza, was the FM, WPLJ, where I was the producer for the morning program. Lots of wacky morning DJ stuff: parody songs, satirical commercials, character voices, skits, and bits, all for entertainment purposes. If we had something a little too “highbrow,” our host would suggest we give it to Rush. In turn, if Rush had something he thought better suited our audience, he’d share it. It meant interfacing on a semi-regular basis.

He was strikingly different off the air than on, at least back then: quiet, reserved, shy, even. And a gentleman.

He had a fledgling TV show at the time. It was awful, but we were happy to help promote it. That meant the occasional trek to the AM side during the 9 o’clock hour to invite him to our studio for a little plugola. He’d be in the building by then preparing for his broadcast, which started at noon, Eastern. Yet, any time I went to his office to invite him, he was reluctant. Grateful, but, “Oh, we don’t need to do that.” He’d hem and haw a bit as we walked to the FM side but then, in the studio, once the mic was on, as if a light had gone on in him, he went from reticent to unreserved.

Often after getting off the air, we’d invite him to lunch, which, for us, was 10:30 in the morning. He always declined.

“Can we get you anything?”

“No, no thanks.”

We had our usual lunch spot, “Salad World,” about a block away. One time we went to pay and the cashier said it was already paid for.

“By who?”

“I can’t say.”

Rush wouldn’t say, either, but we knew it was him. You’d go back to his office to thank him, or tell him he didn’t need to do that, and he’d feign ignorance.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he’d say.

He’d repeat the gesture now and then.

Vice President Dan Quayle came to the station once. I was tasked to sit in the news pit with ABC Radio News anchors and reporters and record the interview in the hopes Quayle might trip over his words as he often did so we could use it on our morning show the next day. As Secret Service personnel combed the building, the news guys teased Rush, predicting he’d just suck up and give a softball interview. Rush promised otherwise.

“Don’t worry,” he vowed. “I’ll give him a good grilling.”

He didn’t. It was practically saccharine. Not that he didn’t come out of the studio afterward, beaming proudly about the “great interview” he’d just done. The news guys laid into him. Terrible job, total suck-up, etc, etc.

“Oh no,” Rush responded, “I just gave him the toughest interview he ever had!”

The reporters were somewhere between incredulous and laughing hysterically. I mostly was annoyed that Quayle didn’t trip over himself.

Afterward, I went down to Rush’s office. “Thanks a lot,” I said. “I wasted a whole hour taping that thing without getting a single sound bite worth using. And you definitely soft-pedaled that interview.”

“I know,” he said, “but isn’t fun trolling those reporters?”

I’ve heard similar stories from any number of former colleagues who knew him far better than I did.

Rush is credited with opening the floodgates for conservative talk radio, but along with his talent, he had three things going for him when he arrived on the scene: The AM radio band was dying and station owners had no idea how to replace the MOR (Middle of the Road) format music by Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams and big band jazz that aging listeners tuned into.

Using Rush as a replacement was not only convenient, in those early years it was practically free through the little-known practice in broadcast syndication called “barter.” Instead of paying for a program, stations give up some of their advertising time — X number of minutes per hour depending on the product, the revenue for which went to the syndicator. Solving a programming problem in exchange for a few commercials per hour? Who could resist?

At around the same time, a Republican Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which President Clinton signed. It was the first major overhaul in broadcasting law since the Communications Act of 1934. It had many provisions that lawmakers favored but few in Washington saw the unintended consequences of a nondescript clause in one provision that removed highly restrictive ownership caps. Before long, instead of hundreds of owners in every corner of the country owning a handful of radio stations, a handful of corporate owners owned hundreds of radio stations and syndicated their content from New York or Los Angeles to the rest of the country. Rush was an easy answer to their programming problems on the AM band.

The profit-minded radio world — never one to show much bold creativity — started seeking Rush clones. It wasn’t long before entire stations were filled with Rush imitators, and thus, only the conservative point of view. This wasn’t a business decision based on free-market economics. The business model in radio is to imitate, not innovate. I’ve long maintained that if Rush had been a liberal, we’d have had a sea of liberal talk show hosts on the air. Such is the radio business.

Over time, Rush kind of became a caricature of himself — inevitable, perhaps. And he became trapped by the audience expectation he established. God forbid he offer any sort of praise to a Democratic politician or policy. His listeners would have revolted.

Lee Vanden-Handel, who ran the company that syndicated Rush’s program and worked with Rush for 20 years before retiring in 2009, called Rush “a consummate professional. He knows his audience. He stays with it, and it has stayed with him. That’s not politics. That’s … well … good business.”

It’s easy to excoriate Rush for his content, content that was too often grotesque, hideous, and dangerous. But the more troubling truth is that there was an audience for that kind of content. You can’t last on the air if you don’t have listeners and Rush had enough of them to sustain his program and that content for nearly 35 years. And they’ll continue to listen for that content regardless of whoever takes Rush’s place just as they have continued to tune in to all his imitators.

You can decide for yourself what that says about us as Americans, and as human beings, but I cannot go down the “good riddance” road and dance on the Rush’s grave. I suggest that those who have might recall how appalled they were by the jubilation on various conservative sites when John McCain died, and how appalled they will be when the invective starts flowing over the inevitable deaths of, say, Nancy Pelosi or Bill Clinton. And they’ll justify it by pointing to all the nasty things people said in reaction to Rush’s death. And just as conservative websites are condemning that invective, which they wasted no time dutifully cataloging for their readers, liberal websites will do the exact same thing when one of their champions passes on, forgetting their own behavior when the script was flipped. In some ways, these two polar opposites are exactly alike.

Rush said plenty of awful things over the years — about Chelsea Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Michael J. Fox, veterans, and private citizens like Sandra Fluke. We needn’t say in kind about him what he said about so many. Criticizing an adversary by acting like that adversary may say more about the critic than the critiqued.

Bruce is a longtime radio broadcaster and commentator whose works have appeared in McClatchy, Gatehouse Media and other properties.

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