DANIEL VAUGHAN: Rush Limbaugh reigned with a golden microphone

Dominating a mass media medium is challenging. Reinventing a medium entirely, changing how everyone talks about politics, dominating that medium, and triggering attempts to build partisan equivalents is remarkable.

That’s just what Rush Limbaugh did when he entered the national airwaves in 1987. He continued that impact until the day he departed this earth on Feb. 17, 2021.

Conservative radio broadcasters existed before Rush Limbaugh. In his book, The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement, Paul Matzko writes about how those broadcasters struggled against and fought overreaching government regulation to broadcast anything at all. But that was a different era.

Before Rush Limbaugh’s national syndication in 1987, the airwaves were ruled by The Fairness Doctrine, promulgated by the FCC. Ostensibly, the Fairness Doctrine defenders claimed that the doctrine ensured all points of view got represented, and people weren’t forced to listen to only one point of view. In practice, however, “licensees were obliged not only to cover fairly the views of others, but also to refrain from expressing their own views.”

In short, it led to a form of censorship taking over. And with progressive jurists on the Supreme Court, eager to push whatever notions of free speech the left believed that year, the FCC rules got upheld as constitutional. 

It wasn’t until 1987 that then-President Ronald Reagan vetoed reauthorization legislation for the Fairness Doctrine. Reagan’s FCC gutted the regulations around it and we finally got an end of the Fairness Doctrine era.

In this world, Rush Limbaugh stepped into national syndication, armed with a new economic model and the only free national platform in American pumping out conservative viewpoints. If Ronald Reagan’s conservatism signaled the conservative movement’s ascendance in politics, Rush Limbaugh signaled the same for media organizations. His dominance challenged the authority of all the news institutions around him.

Limbaugh’s success helped pave the way for countless conservative commentators and even the ascendance of politicians. Former Vice President Mike Pence credited Limbaugh for why he made it into Congress as a newly elected member in 2001.

On the right, Limbaugh revolutionized talk radio and conservative access to the media in general. His success showed that channels like Fox News could thrive. And on the internet, Matt Drudge revolutionized the internet for conservatives. 

But for his era, Limbaugh revolutionized talk radio on the right. The Fairness Doctrine was predicated on scarcity. Instead, we learned that the number of options was limitless, making the need for the Fairness Doctrine vanish with one man’s golden microphone. 

Limbaugh brought right-wing populism to the airwaves in a way it had never experienced. He spun ideas around while entertaining people with endless jabs and monologues. And in the process, he helped create a new generation of conservative, libertarian, and right-wing thinkers.

I would know. I’m one of them.

I grew up traveling to various activities, and my parents generally had Limbaugh on the car radio, interspersed with other local talk radio personalities. Talking heads like him helped spark an interest in politics. Now I write columns here and have my own podcast in no small part because I am, like so many on the right, imitating Limbaugh.

Such was Limbaugh’s impact in empowering talk radio to impact politics at a state and national level that liberals decided they had to jump in on the act to challenge the right’s dominance of the radio airwaves. That’s how we got the failure that was Air America Radio in 2004. Seventeen years after Limbaugh launched a radio revolution, the left finally decided they needed to get in on the action.

The venture was a complete and total flop. Within two years, Air America Radio was already filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and it shuttered entirely in 2010. None of them could capture the same audience or magic as Trump (though a few of them are now on MSNBC).

There’s only one Rush.

And that’s the thing about him and his show. The opportunity was open for anyone to seize that moment, but only Rush Limbaugh blasted off like a rocket. The thing that set him apart in that respect was his unending optimism. Too many talk show hosts and others get on the radio and blast out negativity 24/7. But Rush still talked about how America was fundamentally good and better days were always ahead.

It was a similar concept with Reagan and his “Morning in America” slogan. People want to believe in the good and believe in hope. They got that while listening to Rush. His eternal optimism for America was a core part of the EIB Network. There’s a long shadow now behind that golden microphone. Hopefully, we retain the same optimism of its owner.