Rush Limbaugh Suffers Minimal Impact From Ad Boycott (Analysis)

Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh
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When Don Imus utterred his infamous “nappy-headed hos” comment in 2007, it cost him a radio and TV gig. Now Rush Limbaugh’s detractors are hoping the country’s No. 1 talk-radio host had his Imus moment when he called reproductive-rights activist Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” prompting advertisers to flee.

So far, though, Limbaugh’s opponents have been disappointed, and an analysis of the math – a very tricky proposition in itself – suggests their goal of running Limbaugh off the air will fall short. 

How much ad revenue Limbaugh’s radio show takes in is a closely guarded secret. Published reports usually indicate $200 million annually, though one radio-industry insider says that figure is probably overstated by as much as $80 million. Limbaugh’s salary and bonuses total some $50 million a year, so even if one goes with the lowball figure of $120 million in revenue, there’s plenty of room for partners Premiere Radio Networks and Clear Channel Communications to reap multimillion-dollar profits annually from their star talker — at least through 2016, when his contract expires.

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Unless, or course, the campaign to drum him off the airwaves is successful.

The count changes daily, but more than 140 advertisers have ditched Limbaugh (and two of his 600 affiliate stations have dropped the show) since the campaign against him began in earnest March 3, three days after Fluke, a Georgetown University law student, told Democratic House members that her school’s health insurance should be required to cover contraception. That same day, Limbaugh made his first apology for his remarks.

Limbaugh has been telling his audience that the boycott is a manufactured effort spearheaded by liberal groups like Media Matters For America, and he has likened the number of advertisers he has lost to “losing a couple of French fries in the container when it’s delivered to you at the drive-thru,” considering that his show attracts up to 18,000 local sponsors in addition to the 100 or so advertisers that purchase national spots.

It’s not quite so insignificant as a few fries, though. One insider acknowledges that if the campaign is as successful as it has been thus far, it could cost the show 6 percent of its national ad revenue and nearly that in local ad revenue this year (published reports indicating that 50 percent is at stake are preposterous, the source said).

“Media Matters and the other censors will never wipe out enough revenue to make the show go away,” said the source. “But a lot of small businesses who advertise are being hurt by this nonsense.”

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Media Matters campaign director Angelo Carusone says the Limbaugh insider is ignoring “lingering costs,” such as falling advertising rates based on lower demand. He also points out that Premiere took the unusual step of suspending for two weeks the “barter” ads that stations are normally required to broadcast so that it may have time to sort out which companies still stand with Limbaugh and which ones do not. It’s a sign, Carusone says, that the Limbaugh brand has become toxic in some circles.

Media Matters has been lobbing salvos at Limbaugh for years, salivating in anticipation of the day that one of its attacks would stick. Founder David Brock wrote March 20 in Politico that “we have monitored ‘The Rush Limbaugh Show’ every day since our founding in 2004.” And Carusone has told reporters that he began hatching his plot to silence Limbaugh since “late 2009 and early 2010.”

The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed, as Limbaugh periodically rails against Media Matters, accusing it of issuing inaccurate missives in an effort to stifle non-liberal voices like his and others the organization has targeted, such as Glenn Beck and Pat Buchanan. To prove the effort against him isn’t quite as grassroots as Media Matters claims it is, Limbaugh has been tweeting to his 145,000 followers the Web site addresses of those who are collaborating with Media Matters, like ThinkProgress.org and StopRush.org (a site registered by Carusone).

Conservative journalists have also pointed to a 2-year-old memo dubbed “Media Matters Project 2012” that lays out its strategy of “creating a culture of corporate accountability” and boasts of successful ad boycotts against Beck and Lou Dobbs, claiming the document is proof that a similar effort against Limbaugh was in the works long before anyone had ever heard of Fluke.

Limbaugh and his supporters are fighting back in other ways, too. They point out, for example, that Media Matters and others are inflating the number of advertisers who have left by counting some companies that weren’t advertising to begin with, like Netflix and Sears. Limbaugh also told his audience that the stock prices of companies that have made anti-Limbaugh proclamations have dropped. But that's not entirely accurate, as evidenced by tech firm Carbonite. Sure, its shares lost 15 percent in the seven trading days after announcing it would dump Limbaugh, but they quickly recovered and on Tuesday were up 16 percent since then.

Perhaps the most effective defense came by way of Fox Business Network hosts Stuart Varney and Charles Payne, who interviewed Mark Stevens, a businessman from New York who advertises on Limbaugh’s show. Stevens described a coordinated attack – which he likened to “organized terrorist activity” – whereby liberal activists nationwide who aren’t his customers have been pressuring him to pull his ads. After his TV appearance, the hosts reported that Stevens received 38,000 emails supporting his decision to stick with Limbaugh compared to 2,000 that condemned him.

“I say this with all the love and appreciation and affection for you that I can muster,” Limbaugh told his audience March 21 after playing audio from the Varney & Co. show. “This is why they are never going to succeed in their primary mission of ousting me.”

Stevens then appeared on the Fox News Channel and told host Megyn Kelley that emails he has been receiving from Limbaugh’s detractors say that he is “under surveillance” and “in danger.”

“Your house is going to be surrounded by buses," "your business is going to be destroyed," "your people are in trouble,” Stevens said when asked about the contents of the emails.

Meanwhile, Limbaugh is still attracting some large advertisers, including Chrysler, Nissan and Fox Broadcasting, which has recently advertised its show Touch

Email: paul.bond@thr.com

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