Rush Limbaugh’s ad feminem assaults on Sandra Fluke, who testified before Congress in support of requiring health insurance to cover birth control, provided an opportunity for his long time opponents to go after the radio host through his sponsors. They did, but despite some visible successes, the boycott isn’t near driving Limbaugh off the air nor toward political moderation or even civility.
A little more than a month ago, following three days of sustained verbal attacks on Fluke, a few of Limbaugh’s sponsors deserted, not wanting to have their products and services associated with his style and politics. The list of companies soon included: Geico, Netflix, Service Magic home contractor, Goodwill, Amberen menopause medication, PolyCom web conferencing, Hadeed Carpets, Accuquote Life Insurance, Vitacost vitamin supplier, Bonobos clothing company, Sensa weight- loss program, Thompson Creek Windows, AOL, Tax Resolution Services, ProFlowers, Legal Zoom online document creator, Carbonite web security firm, Citrix software maker, Sleep Train Mattresses, Sleep Number mattresses and Quicken Loans.
You’ll note the list of sponsors includes companies smaller and less famous than those who support ALEC or command your attention otherwise. The economic model of syndicated radio is very different. Limbaugh’s own network, Excellence in Broadcasting, has some slots each hour to sell on its own. Local radio stations get other slots to sell, while Premiere Radio Networks, his syndicator, also sells and barters ads. Premiere stopped doing so for about two weeks. As Limbaugh’s daily show airs on some 600 stations, one analyst estimated there could be as many as 18,000 sponsors, once local businesses are taken into account (See Forbes analysis).
Limbaugh is in the middle of an eight year contract which pays at least $50 million a year; it expires in 2016–a lifetime away. As long as he maintains his audience, sponsors are going to see value in paying for access to his listeners, numbering about 20 million people.
There are other challenges: Arkansas governor/presidential candidate turned talk show host, Mike Huckabee, has launched his own conservative radio show, running directly opposite Limbaugh’s program. Promising a less confrontational approach and a more affable personality, Governor Huckabee is already appearing on 200 stations. If he succeeds in peeling off some Limbaugh listeners–and outlets–who want a more genial conservative approach, Limbaugh will have every incentive to double down on his own distinctiveness, holding tight to the audience that responds to his hostile hyperbolic humor.
Conservative websites proclaimed the Limbaugh boycott a failure (e.g.), but so have more mainstream outlets (e.g.). The tempest associated with the boycott will pass –as these things do (note that Don Imus is still on the air!). Those who would boycott Limbaugh probably weren’t listening to him in the first place, tuning in only to take down the names of advertisers. The segmented media landscape means that anyone who can reliably deliver a definable audience will be able to make a living on air.