I would be remiss if not mentioning thoughts about the death of Rush Limbaugh at the age of 70. If you are looking for some great tribute to the man or lauding his time as a broadcaster, this will not be the post you were hoping for. After all, Limbaugh did more to undermine radio than to lift it, sully it more than to enrich its long history in our nation. The medium that I love, and once worked in was stained by his actions.
Over the years the bombast, crude remarks, and low-balls that were a daily aspect of Limbaugh’s on-air time brought his ratings down and his advertisers far fewer in number. (I have commented on these matters relating to Rush 34 times over the years.) While the ratings and ad revenues are the milk and bread to the industry, I would argue there is something more fundamental that should be considered about his abusing radio.
The stories are countless of those who have looked to radio over the many, many decades for friendship and companionship. Radio has been there late nights when the baby will not sleep, during morning drive time, at work for music and sports scores, and then catching up on news and weather in the evenings.
Even though television allows us an image, radio remains the most intimate medium. It is the place where we get to know the announcer and hear the banter about the morning drive into the station, or insights into their life. The effective radio broadcaster gives us glimpses of who he/she really is and that creates a bond between those on both sides of the radio dial.
But Limbaugh worked feverishly to erode civility on the airwaves. That is how his life can be best summed up.
I am well aware that the low-bar in broadcasting now takes place on both right-wing and left-wing programming as the announcers and hosts seem more interested in red meat tactics for political purposes than striving for high marks in broadcasting. But let us not forget it was Rush who created the basement from which the others could also reside. While there are still many stations that will not stoop to the level we heard about in the news repeatedly with Limbaugh, it remains unsettling to know that national broadcasting standards slipped in large measure because of him.
This morning, after the news was reported Limbaugh had died, a broadcasting friend reached out and asked who else might be viewed as a broadcaster who influenced radio in the past 50 years? He had already placed Larry King on the list, and I readily added Paul Harvey. All my life I have never forgotten the professional standards of Harvey, one of my radio heroes based on his ability to enunciate words, and who wore a tie for his radio broadcasts. He knew the way he looked and acted in a radio studio would come across over the airwaves. And it did.
Then while picking up dishes in the kitchen another broadcaster who made history, and like Limbaugh brought hate and bile to the airwaves, came to my mind. Though he was ‘famous’ for his rants about 85 years ago, his linkage to Rush is very clear.
Father Charles Coughlin.
Coughlin is one of those truly interesting, though sad stories, from history. He used his radio program to all but incite violence on Jewish Americans, and over time ramped up his peddling of anti-semitic bigotry to the bizarre. By the time fascism was better known, Coughlin had become a supporter of some of the ideas advanced by Hitler and Mussolini. The broadcasts have been described as “a variation of the Fascist agenda applied to American culture.”
Limbaugh had a different era to play with but used the same base motives and instincts to stir hate. He used white supremacy, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and misogyny as his weapons. He even mocked the deaths of people from AIDS on his national broadcasts.
Somewhere along the way, those who harvest radio licenses have created a mean-spirited and pitiful listening landscape where now the most base commentary can be heard, and the most pathetic hosts can reap huge profits. Today the one who fostered so much that is currently wrong with radio has died.
There is no reason to feel anything about that news other than a sense of the loss of radio as we once knew it.