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Rush Limbaugh’s Outsized Impact

February 28th, 2021 by dk

Rush Limbaugh didn’t invent talk (or hate) radio any more than Ray Kroc invented the hamburger. The innovation each came to represent had more to do with their business models capturing a cultural zeitgeist. The adage “form follows function” proves doubly true. A new profit model shapes the product, and then the product reshapes America.

Kroc bought into a fledgling hamburger restaurant chain in 1954. Dick and Mac McDonald had a recipe and a small customer base. Kroc had a vision for world domination. He built the juggernaut by selling franchises secured by real estate. By 1958, McDonald’s had sold 100 million hamburgers.

The secret was efficiency and standardization. Every McDonald’s hamburger tasted exactly the same. Americans loved their cars and the new interstate highway system. They also loved a familiar and affordable meal wherever they went. The business model fueled the growth, and that growth literally reshaped America — and many Americans.

Likewise, Rush Limbaugh and his colleagues recognized an opportunity and seized on it. For Kroc, it was Americans’ new mobility and their love for “the open road.” For Limbaugh, it was deregulated telecommunications and inexpensive toll-free calling.

Limbaugh had his own plan for world domination. His people offered a new deal for local radio stations. Limbaugh would provide hours of programming free of charge to general managers in return for a portion of the advertising slots during those hours.

For general managers, it was a dream come true. They stopped paying local personalities because national talent was available for free. The national advertisers rarely competed with the advertisers the local advertising sales staff could reach.

Limbaugh built a national audience and his business empire on a different sort of advertiser. What could be sold over the phone and sent through the mail? Ointments and supplements, reverse mortgages and pillows, using dedicated 800 lines to track responses. The rate they pay for the national ad spot is often based on sales generated.

Notice how the consequences of this business model ripple outward. National advertisers attracted to this arrangement usually sell only one product and a promise: “Buy from us and your problem will disappear.” They’re not looking for repeat customers. Loyalty doesn’t matter. Most sales are “one and done.” 

They sell miracle cures — the last remedy you’ll ever need for stiff joints, sleepless nights, financial anxieties, etcetera. They don’t seek loyal customers. The 800 number you called to order may well be disconnected before you say, “money-back guarantee.”

Does this reshape the listeners? How could it not? The miracle cure model inevitably seeps into the programming content itself. “Whatever pain you’re feeling, we can fix it. We don’t need to meet you. We already know you. Those experts that others trust are wrong. Call this number and your pain will vanish.”

Never mind that last week’s solutions are no longer here. Or that one ad’s promise contradicts or nullifies previous ads’ claims. There’s no longitudinal logic to it — no cause and effect. No loyalty. No learning. That’s the world that Limbaugh built. We have to live in it, even if he no longer does.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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