In the wake of uproar following conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh’s characterization of 30-year-old contraception activist and Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke last month as a “slut,” Limbaugh has seen advertisers flee and entire campaigns waged to get him off the air.
But the big question remains: Just how have Limbaugh’s ratings been affected?
There has been no measure of his listenership since the Fluke flap. But nonpartisan radio expert Michael Harrison told The Daily Caller that Limbaugh’s numbers likely are going nowhere but up — despite the anti-Limbaugh push.
Harrison is founder and publisher of Talkers magazine, the industry’s leading trade journal.
According to Harrison, even if all the publicity is negative, it is a “good bet that Rush is enjoying pretty high ratings” last week and going into this week.
“The irony is that he probably right now has the biggest audience he’s had in years, and the double irony of all this is sponsors that are fleeing, they’re missing out on the best advertising buy in radio,” Harrison told TheDC in an interview, explaining that Limbaugh incites passion on all fronts.
Limbaugh’s fans, said Harrison, will galvanize around him, not abandon him. Many of his detractors are listening because they feel vindicated, he explained, and still others are tuning in to hear what the fuss is about.
“[T]he whole thing is so full of irony, and so full of misinformation that it’s almost laughable,” he said. (RELATED: More on Rush Limbaugh)
Harrison, who touts his support for all broadcasting — progressive, conservative, and everything in between — said that while many advertisers have left Limbaugh’s program, those attacking him are unknowingly inflating the number of defectors since they do not understand how radio advertising works, specifically “no-buy” dictates from radio networks.
“First of all, certainly a lot of advertisers have canceled because they’re frightened to be in a place that’s dangerous or controversial. They don’t want their product attached to controversy too much,” he said. While some controversy can be good for advertising, Harrison added, too much can be a turn-off for potential ad clients.
According to Harrison, the “no-buy” list is just an advertising strategy — not a boycott of any specific program.
“It has nothing to do with fleeing, boycotting [or] censoring,” he said. “It’s just that certain advertisers have certain shows on a list that they don’t want to be on because they don’t want to be on controversial programming, and this has gone on for years.”
“There’s nothing new about this,” Harrison cautioned, “and what’s happening now is I’m starting to see a number of the sponsors that have been on this list for many, many years, suddenly being touted by the forces that are trying to bring Limbaugh down. They’re sort of putting their names out there as if they’re piling on to this list of advertisers that are fleeing. And that’s where this thing has become very murky.”
“Talk radio has always dealt with the ‘no-buy’ list, and it’s not that it’s a repudiation against talk radio. It’s just that not every advertiser is for every kind of show. And for every advertiser that doesn’t want to be in controversy, there are advertisers who do.”
The 45-year radio veteran added that it is likely that some of the advertisers that legitimately chose to leave Limbaugh will return.
“I think that some of them are truly outraged to know what’s going on and don’t like Rush Limbaugh and don’t want to be there,” he said. “I think some of them love being there but feel like, ‘maybe we should just, you know, duck for cover for a while and when the smoke clears, when the dust settles, we’ll come back.'”
Harrison noted that while people get angry when he says nice or supportive things about Limbaugh, he’s only interested in promoting broadcasting — both liberal and conservative.
“The fact is, there’s a whole other perspective on this and it’s called broadcasting. It’s an industry, it’s a business, and you know, these guys are not politicians. One of the craziest questions I get asked all the time is, ‘do you think Rush is losing his influence as a political force in this country?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, who cares? What does it matter?’ I mean, that’s not what he’s paid to do. He’s an entertainer.”
A spokesman for Premiere Radio Networks, Limbaugh’s syndicator, told TheDC that Arbitron’s “Portable People Meter” ratings data for March won’t be in until April, and their nationwide ratings won’t be available until the fall. Arbitron is the leading consumer research company that delivers broadcast radio ratings.
Limbaugh has apologized for his comments about Sandra Fluke.