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Rush Limbaugh's California Ratings Debacle

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There's only one radio station in America that takes its name from Rush Limbaugh's radio empire and that's KEIB in Los Angeles -- the EIB mirrors Limbaugh's "Excellence in Broadcasting" motto. Clear Channel, which syndicates Limbaugh's program nationally, owns the station and flipped the call letters to KEIB in honor of him when the company announced he was leaving his longtime Los Angeles radio home, KFI, and moving to KEIB in January. There, according to Clear Channel, he would anchor a new, all-conservative lineup of Republican-friendly talkers, including Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.

Three months later, Limbaugh's KEIB is a ratings disaster, coming in 37th place in the second largest radio market in America with a .5 rating share in March, the most recent month available, according to Nielsen ratings. (A ratings share represents the percent of those listening to radio in the market who are dialed into a particular station.)

How small is KEIB's audience? So small that 11 non-English radio stations have larger audiences in Los Angeles. And so small that KEIB actually trails four college-run, non-commercial stations in the market. This, for a man who makes $40 million a year to attract big radio audiences? As for KFI, the station Limbaugh left and which switched to an all-local news and talk format, its ratings remain healthy in the talker's absence. A top-10 station, KFI boasts an audience six times larger than KEIB's.

The ratings news is almost as bad up the California coast in San Francisco. There, as in Los Angeles, Clear Channel moved Limbaugh on the AM dial, from KKSF to KNEW, and dubbed the station "The Patriot."

"Rush Limbaugh has built the ratings and revenue of hundreds of America's most successful radio stations and is looking forward to doing the same at these new Clear Channel homes," Brian Glicklich, a Limbaugh spokesman crowed last December.

So far however, Limbaugh's arrival at KNEW hasn't budged the minuscule ratings, according to Nielsen: January: .8, February: .8, and March: .7. (Those ratings are flat compared to last year, prior to Limbaugh's arrival.)

The big-city woes aren't confined to the West Coast. In New York, the nation's largest radio market and where Rush once reigned supreme, the talker recently exited his longtime AM home, WABC, and moved to Clear Channel's WOR. With Limbaugh as the main draw, the station now ranks 22nd in the market and trails four non-English stations as well as a commercial-free classical music outlet.

Note that these ratings are for stations' total week numbers and it's possible that Limbaugh's three-hour program out-performs the station overall. (Nielsen doesn't publicly break out ratings by day part.) "But it's a far cry from the heyday when Rush "made" a station, and was on so many number ones," talk radio consultant Holland Cooke noted to Media Matters.

Limbaugh's major market ratings woes arrive in the wake of the 2012 Sandra Fluke scandal, where he castigated and insulted the graduate student for three days on his program, calling her a "slut" and suggesting she post videos of herself having sex on the Internet. The astonishing monologues sparked an unprecedented advertiser exodus. And the Fluke dent has proven to be permanent. Just this month, Oklahoma State University moved to make sure its radio commercials did not air on Limbaugh's program.

The controversy clearly tarnished Limbaugh's once herculean standing within the radio business, to the point where a major industry player like Cumulus Media felt comfortable negotiating its Limbaugh contract in the press, suggesting the talk radio powerhouse might walk away from Rush. The two sides came to an agreement, but the fact that Cumulus seemed unconcerned it might lose Limbaugh on its stations indicated the talker's standing had fallen.

But wait, Limbaugh's loyal Dittoheads would insist, New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco are all liberal hotbeds, so of course Limbaugh's ratings there have always been slight, right?


One of Limbaugh's early claims to fame was that he attracted large audiences in major blue-state markets like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. While at KFI, Limbaugh had been part of the city's top-rated morning block. And over the years he was credited for turning WABC in New York into a ratings powerhouse. Indeed, in his prime a decade ago, Limbaugh helped power WABC to become the number five-rated station in all of New York. And in January 2009, Limbaugh bragged his New York rating was a six share. Today, he calls the city's 22nd most-listened station home; its overall rating share is 1.5.

But wait again, KEIB and KNEW are newly flipped stations, so of course the audience is starting out small as it grows over time, right? Not necessarily. KEIB's ratings actually declined from February to March, according to Nielsen, going from .6 to .5. The same holds true in San Francisco, where Limbaugh's new home at KNEW dipped from .8 in February, to .7 in March.

Keep in mind, within the radio industry, mighty Limbaugh used to be seen as tent pole for stations, which is why they paid so much for the right to air his program: It provided a reliable way to boost the audience during middays, radio insiders tell Media Matters. It meant stations could rely on an army of local Dittoheads to tune in everyday, which in turn would goose the stations' overall numbers and help them land key national advertisers who scanned for large total audiences. It was all part of the "Rush Advantage," which is how the talker's syndicator, Clear Channel-owned Premier Networks, pitched the business.

But what's the advantage of paying Limbaugh the big bucks when host stations in New York and Los Angeles with barely-there ratings lose out to public radio stations at the far end of the dial? And when Limbaugh's advertising base has absolutely shriveled since his self-inflicted Fluke wound?

Limbaugh likes to brag he has 20 million listeners nationwide, a dubious boast at best. I'm not sure how he reaches that number when his listening audience in major markets like Los Angeles can now probably fit comfortably inside a basketball arena.

Crossposted at Media Matters.