Rush to conclusions? Talk station WLS isn’t talking
If you’re one of the 101,000 people in the Chicago area (according to the latest Arbitron figures) who listens religiously to Rush Limbaugh every day on WLS-AM (890), you’re probably hoping this whole fracas soon blows over.
But if you’re among the who-knows-how-many others who cannot abide Limbaugh, you may be hoping it’s the beginning of the end for El Rushbo after more than 22 years on the politically conservative news/talk station.
Either way, don’t bother looking to WLS for any answers. In the week since Limbaugh used words like “slut” and “prostitute” to attack a 30-year-old Georgetown Law School student named Sandra Fluke over a three-day period — and subsequently posted an apology — it’s been an ongoing topic among callers to the station’s talk shows. But no one in management will say a word about it.
Ask whether sponsors are cancelling their advertising on the station, and WLS won’t comment. Ask whether complaints about Limbaugh and threats of boycotts are accelerating, and WLS won’t comment. Ask whether the station remains committed to Limbaugh’s show, and WLS won’t comment.
Read into that whatever you like, but the silence emanating from the president and general manager, Michael Damsky, and the operations director, Drew Hayes, matches that of most of Limbaugh’s major market stations across the country.
One of the few radio executives in the country to speak out in support of Limbaugh was the man who brought him to WLS. Tom Tradup, who was president and general manager when the station switched to news/talk in 1989, issued a statement Saturday that said in part: “Rush did the right thing to take back his indelicate choice of words . . . but his apology will do little to silence the hysteria being fomented by anti-talk radio critics.” Tradup is now vice president of news and talk programming for Salem Radio Network, which owns news/talk WIND-AM (560). He could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Just before Citadel Broadcasting sold its radio stations to Cumulus Media last year, Citadel extended its deal with Premiere Radio Networks to carry Limbaugh for two more years. So while the prospect of WLS forfeiting Limbaugh to WIND or another competitor seems highly unlikely, it’s not as unthinkable as it once was: His 11am to 2 pm weekday show is tied for third place with news/talk WGN-AM (720) overall, but it ranks 23rd among listeners in the key money demo between the ages of 25 and 54. What’s more, Limbaugh has shown no growth in the ratings since 2011 despite this being a presidential election year that should play to his strength.
Were Limbaugh to become too great a liability, his replacement is already waiting in the wings. Last month, Cumulus Media Networks signed former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee to host a syndicated talk show in the same time slot — 11am to 2pm weekdays — starting April 2. As a lower-cost alternative to Limbaugh, Huckabee has been labeled by some in the trade press “Mike Wannabee.”
So far only two stations out of more than 600 have dropped Limbaugh’s show since the flap started — one in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and the other in Hilo, Hawaii (where the general manager said Limbaugh had “crossed a line of decency”). What’s been harder to pin down is the effect of threatened advertiser boycotts. The radio sales business is so slippery and complicated that no one has been able to determine with certainty what the financial impact has been on stations that carry Limbaugh’s show, including WLS.
Rather than leading with the results from Super Tuesday, Limbaugh felt compelled to open his show Wednesday with what he called “inside baseball stuff,” addressing reports that he’d lost dozens of sponsors. “Nobody is losing money here, including us, in all this,” he insisted. “They are not canceling the business on our stations. They’re just saying they don’t want their spots to appear in my show.”