(This a two-part article on the one-year anniversary of the passing of Rush Hudson Limbaugh III)
It was a cool March morning in 1988. Driving down the highway in sunny California with my AM radio turned up a bit higher than normal. Nothing unusual for a 20 year old kid before the digital age of streaming music, podcasts, and iHeart Radio. I would turn the dial (the old-fashioned way) to my favorite stations and hope for good reception.
It was then that I happened upon his voice for the first time. As the amplification became stronger, his voice boomed loud enough to where it seemed as though he was riding along shotgun next to me. But my first encounter with Rush Limbaugh was not a pleasant one. After hearing him utter a few sentences, my first impression was, “Who is this blowhard?!” That was how Rush Hudson Limbaugh III entered my life. Whether you liked him or not, he always left an indelible impression upon his listeners. That was not only his job, but his gift. Little did I know at that moment that the “blowhard” on the other end of my AM radio would inexplicably alter the course of my life forever. I will share how he did this later.
“Well, he saved an entire medium of communications. He saved AM radio.” –James Carville, democratic political strategist and advisor for Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign.
But his gifts were not limited to speaking loud and bold about a topic. His biggest gift was making a connection between the beliefs and values of everyday Americans, and tying that into how we choose our leaders and, thus, make the larger decisions that would shape our own lives. He became the man that would go on to define the modern Conservative movement, which lives on today in America. And his story is an authentic American journey that mirrors the very beliefs he espoused. That list included rugged individualism, capitalism, hard work, determination, traditional American values, and wrapped in the fundamentals of republicanism as defined by his political idol, Ronald Reagan. And like any authentic journey, Rush endured many trials to the very end.
Rush’s journey into broadcasting began in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. At the age of 8, he approached his father, a successful attorney, and told him that he wanted a career in radio. “I said, ‘Pop, I love this. I know I’m great at it. I’m going to get even better.” His disapproving father learned to live with his son’s choice reluctantly, as it turned out to be the one thing in Rush’s life he could stick to doing. He quit the Boy Scouts, college, and virtually anything else he tried. He was fired as a DJ several times. His career in radio was going so far in the wrong direction that he decided to try a sales job with the Kansas City Royals for a time.
In November 1983, Rush went back to radio, but stayed in Kansas City. However, after less than a year at KMBZ, he was fired for the 5th time from a radio job. By 1984, he was 33 years old and “mired in loneliness and aimlessly walking through life”, he would later recall. But, this was the year Rush would get one last shot. A position became available for a daytime radio talk show host at KFBK in Sacramento. The irony is that a controversial talk show host was let go for making a racial slur on the air. A man by the name of Morton Downey, Jr. This time, Rush would discover the format, and in turn a formula for success, that would in time come to define Rush.
“When he started, he was more of an entertainer than a political animal,” said Kitty O’ Neal, Rush’s former producer at KFBK. “He was constantly playing jokes and pranks on the radio.” Many of his famous sayings and bits came from his days at KFBK. His reference “for those of you in Rio Linda”, when he would dumb-down his linguistics for people from California’s unofficial hillbilly haven. Some of his iconic terms, such as ‘feminazi’, ‘environmentalist whacko‘, and ‘flaming libs’, to name a few, were born during his time here.
Tom Sullivan was a journalist back then, and who would later have his own talk radio show: “One of the things about people who did not like him, they still listened to him. Still tuned in. You know, they’d say “did you hear what Rush said today?” This was one of the keys to Limbaugh’s success. He tapped into a base audience that loved and identified with what he was saying. But those that despised him could not afford to not listen, as he was unwittingly galvanizing them to defend the very issues Limbaugh would attack. It was one of the driving forces in growing the largest talk-show radio audience in history.
Julia Wick of the LA Times wrote about Rush’s success in California’s capitol:
“When Limbaugh began his nearly four-year stint at the station, few in the city knew his name. Three years later, he was serving as the grand marshal of the local St. Patrick’s Day parade and his popularity was virtually unparalleled in Sacramento talk show history. Ratings tripled during his tenure. He also made his debut as TV regular while in Sacramento, with a local news segment which he faced off against the liberal mayor of Davis.”
And though Rush often referred to it as his adopted hometown, not all of his experiences in Sacramento were flattering. “Women in Sacramento took my feminists jokes seriously and thought I was a fat, sexist piglet,” Rush recalled. “Men in the newsroom didn’t like it when I called them ‘flaming libs’. They gave me my own office, but it was clear to me they wanted me out of the newsroom,” he told the Sacramento Bee in 1988.
Just as Rush Limbaugh had become the king of controversy in SacTown, one of the most powerful executives in radio was about to make a decision that would catapult Rush’s career to galactic heights.
“Everybody has different talents. And I think Rush’s unique talent was whatever the issue happened to be, he would find a take on it that nobody else would ever think of. It’s a gift” –Sean Hannity, Fox News
As the story goes, retired powerhouse radio executive, Edward F. McLaughlin, took his ‘golden parachute’ from his days as a radio executive at WABC in New York City to form his own company, EFM Media. “After meticulous planning for a successful launch, McLaughlin knew he needed more than just a talented host- but a force behind the mic,” Megan Kelly shared on iHeart radio’s series, Rush Limbaugh: The Man Behind the Golden EIB Microphone. That search lead the former retired executive to KFBK in Sacramento, where a red-hot Rush Limbaugh was burning up the airwaves with his controversial style and provocative conservative swagger.
McLaughlin had his man. And the nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh Show began on August 1, 1988, at his original flagship station in New York City, WABC. Rush began with 56 affiliates nationwide and would never look back. “Ed McLaughlin never wavered a single time. He never asked me to tone it down, to change things, to do whatever to accommodate this and that,” Rush shared. But Rush, as bold, brash, and bigger-then-life the personality he was on air, remained humble in his assessment of his rise to fame, always giving others the credit. “People credit me ( with the success of the show). But I couldn’t have done any of this without Ed McLaughlin. (He) saved AM radio by investing in it.”
Tomorrow, I’ll share more about the side of Rush Limbaugh few would talk about, but what I believed defined the man more than his on-air persona. And along the way, share more of the great memories, as well as the monumental moments during the height of his success. But we mustn’t ignore the courage of his final year on the air. His drive to provide a great show to his listeners, as one famous commentator put it “was his bucket list”. And this we will memorialize as well. Tune in then…
(Chris Gaines in an author and editor for patriotgaines.com)
story sources: Rush Limbaugh: The Man Behind the Golden EIB Microphone, hosted by James Golden (aka “Bo Snerdley”) for iHeart Radio, LA Times, and rushlimbaugh.com
photo sources: iheart.com and rushlimbaugh.com