The fallout from Rush Limbaugh's verbal attack of Sandra Fluke has Democrats doing cartwheels. Progressive organizations across the country are gleefully taking credit for his loss of stations and advertisers. Democrats and progressive groups such as Think Progress, Media Matters, and others have seized upon this moment in an effort to do the seemingly impossible -- bring down Rush Limbaugh. Feeling like a jubilant David slaying the evil giant Goliath, progressives are clearly celebrating what they see as a great moral and strategic victory. The problem is, the giant isn't dead. And the larger war that Democrats should be waging on the battlefield of talk radio isn't even being fought.
While Limbaugh has clearly been damaged by this current scandal, the damage is minimal. All it really amounts to is a dent in his armor. He faced far greater challenges in 2003 upon the revelation that he was addicted to oxycodone and was doctor shopping to illegally obtain a regular supply of the drug. His subsequent lengthy hiatus from his show to undergo rehab threatened a substantial loss of radio stations and advertisers. However, when he returned, so did the stations and advertisers.
Limbaugh is not just a survivor; he thrives in the face of controversy. In the end, it's the controversy that keeps people listening to his daily broadcasts -- and he knows that. He is arguably the most effective broadcaster of all time and the founding father of the modern talk radio industry. He will survive this current crisis. And the advertisers that have run for cover will eventually return. Being heard by 15 million listeners each week virtually guarantees it.
In the meantime, while Democrats are doing their cartwheels, they continue to be blissfully ambivalent about what their real media battle plan should be -- creating a strong presence on talk radio.
Talk radio is larger than any other media platform and it is dominated by conservative programming. The raw numbers of Americans listening to talk radio dwarf all other political media. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are the top three talk personalities in the nation who reach a combined near 40 million listeners each week -- nearly ten times greater than the combined audiences of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Headline News and CNBC. According to the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, Republican listeners make up only 41 percent of that audience with 28 percent being Democrats and Independents making up 31 percent. Despite that demographic spread, roughly 90 percent of all weekday talk radio programming is conservative and less than 10 percent is progressive.
The last time Democrats focused any strategic attention on radio was in 2004 when Air America launched the national careers of Rachel Maddow, Thom Hartmann, and Randi Rhodes. That same year, I created The Ed Schultz Show and The Stephanie Miller Show. Still stinging over a lost election in 2000 (that they really won), Democrats endeavored to create communications infrastructure to rival the well-established Republican message machine. With a rather diminutive amount of financial investment by progressives, substantial gains were made with the emergence of Schultz, Maddow, Miller and others.
Since that time, Democrats have offered virtually no structural support to encourage the growth of progressive media. They simply don't see the value. Amazingly, democratic campaign advertising dollars continue to flow to conservative radio stations throughout the nation (because they have the biggest audience), and the President (who is a Democrat) is more likely to be a guest on a conservative program over its progressive counterpart. Having supported the creation of progressive media eight years ago, Democrats mistakenly believe it needs to survive and grow on its own without Democratic support. That's like giving birth to a baby then putting it out on the street to fend for itself. In the meantime, Republican organizations continue to fully support conservative talk radio maintaining their overwhelming media advantage.
So while Democrats celebrate this recent battle against Limbaugh, they should know that the giant isn't dead. He'll be back and probably bigger than before. Meanwhile, the larger war that should be waged to grow progressive media remains ignored by Democrats -- which makes this small victory against Limbaugh totally meaningless.
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