Looking Back at Limbaugh's Legacy

Posted by Emma Perley on 3/3/21 3:26 PM

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The following is an article written by the editor of PHC's student newspaper, Emma Perley.

Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio talk show host with a career spanning more than 30 years, died last week at age 70. Limbaugh was the subject of numerous controversies, having been widely known for his “insult radio” segments and caustic manner. To some, he was a polarizing symbol of the conservative movement, while to others, his voice became the megaphone for those who had none during the late 1980s.

Limbaugh reanimated and transformed AM radio as we know it. Only six years prior to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981, Republicans comprised only 20 percent of the population according to a Gallup poll. But how can that be? It wasn’t that Republicans weren’t there—it was that they were simply not heard. Republicans and conservatives had felt their voices stifled while news media like CNN and NBC reigned over the airwaves. Limbaugh and his radio show emerged at a time when conservatives were searching for their voice in the national conversation. Consequently, Limbaugh filled that role with three hours of radio discussion with key conservative talking points five days a week. At his peak, the show reached 20 million listeners across the country on almost 600 radio stations.

Critics charged him with polarizing and derogatory speech. In some respects, Limbaugh was polarizing and derogatory. He joked that he had “talent on loan from God,” would call democrats and liberals wackos and rarely allowed liberal dialogue on his show that did not include his abrasive comments. Powell River Peak called his talk shows “rants” and that his followers “took his words as sacred truth.”

But to reduce Rush Limbaugh to a one-dimensional character would be a mistake.

“Too many people look at just one side—just at his tactics and the way he pitted people against each other,” said Michael Daniels, a 2002 PHC alumni and communications consultant for fifteen years. “He has been a contributor to the political animosity that we are seeing in America today … [but people] don’t look at how Limbaugh democratized access to information, and encouraged people to be informed about things they might not have had access to.”

After the demise of the Fairness Doctrine—through which radio stations had previously been made to allow opposing viewpoints time to present arguments or opinions—Limbaugh’s radio show hit the ground running. Unshackled by the prospect of combatting other viewpoints on air, Limbaugh spent three hours a day talking into a microphone at the KFBK radio station in Sacramento, CA. But he wasn’t just talking. He was articulating political and philosophical conservative ideas to thousands of people sitting in the living room, driving to work, or cooking at the kitchen counter. It wasn’t a lecture—he was hilarious, sarcastic, and engaging as he discussed local news, made parodies, and, more often than not, went on monologues. His topics ranged from environmentalism, abortion, and feminism to compassion, God, and American patriotism.

“Limbaugh basically invented talk radio,” Daniels said. “He brought conservatism to the ‘common man,’ if you will.”

Tom Ziemnick, PHC Vice President for Advancement, first began listening to The Rush Limbaugh Show when he was in college. “I heard this guy for three hours a day, every day,” he said, “saying that ideas matter, here’s why [he’s] a conservative, and here’s what it means. And I was like wow—that’s what I believe!”

Limbaugh was bombastic. He was blunt, biting, and often made himself a target for liberal derision. But he wasn’t a pied piper for the conservative movement either. “I never felt like he was trying to tell people something to make them feel good,” said Ziemnick. “Whether it was Republican or Democrat, he was critical of both when he needed to be.”

Though a professing Christian throughout his lifetime, Limbaugh was married four times and battled a drug addiction. “He got to be very human in front of us all in the last 10-15 years,” Ziemnick said. “He’d always talked about faith and belief in God. It became much more real. It always does when you get closer to your end.”

Limbaugh was a champion for the conservative movement. Through fame, fortune, addiction, and controversy, he remained a pioneer for conservative voices and talk radio. “Love him or hate him—and people do—his impact is unquestioned,” Daniels said. “For both good and for ill.”

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