One week after it was first reported that talk radio giant Cumulus Media might cut ties with Rush Limbaugh and pull his show from 40 of its stations nationwide, the end result of the contractual showdown remains unclear. But we do know this: The damage has been done to Limbaugh and his reputation inside the world of AM radio as an untouchable star.
By opting to publicly negotiate its contract and making it clear the broadcast company is willing to walk away from his program, Cumulus has delivered a once unthinkable blow to Limbaugh's industry prestige. (Cumulus is also threatening to drop Sean Hannity's syndicated radio show.)
Even if Limbaugh wins in the end, he loses. Even if Limbaugh manages to stay on Cumulus' enviable rosters of major market talk stations, Limbaugh comes out of the tussle tarnished and somewhat diminished.
Recall that one year after Limbaugh ignited the most severe crisis of his career by insulting law student Sandra Fluke for three days on the air, attacking her as a "slut," the talker's team announced the host was unhappy with Cumulus. Angry that its CEO had been noting in the press how many advertisers Limbaugh had lost over the Fluke firestorm (losses that continue to accumulate), an anonymous Limbaugh source told Politico the host was so angry he might walk away from Cumulus when his contract expired at the end of the year.
Well, last week Cumulus called Limbaugh's bluff, plain and simple. And now the talker's side appears to be scrambling to make sure his show remains with Cumulus. But again, the damage is done. If Limbaugh really were an all-powerful source in AM radio, he would walk away from Cumulus. But he's not, and he can't.
Cumulus is reportedly driving a hard bargain and wants to reduce the costs associated with carrying Limbaugh's show, especially since he's unable to attract the same advertisers he used to. If in the end a deal is struck and Limbaugh stays with Cumulus for a reduced rate, what happens when the talker's contract expires with another large AM station group? Of course they're going to demand the same deal Cumulus got in exchange for keeping Limbaugh's show, or they'll threaten to drop the talker, too. And then on and on the process will repeat itself as broadcasters realize that maybe they can get Limbaugh on the cheap.
By the way, this is the exact opposite of how Limbaugh renewals used to be handled. Year ago, owners and general managers at Limbaugh's host stations lived in fear of getting a phone call from Limbaugh's syndicator, Clear Channel-owned Premier Networks, informing them the host was moving across town to a competitor when his contract was up. But today, Cumulus negotiates its Limbaugh contract via the press, apparently without the slightest concern about ending its association with him.
Of course, Limbaugh and Clear Channel could hold their ground, refuse to budge on Cumulus' demands and walk away from the radio giant with AM stations from coast to coast. That is an option, but it's also an unpleasant one in terms of what it would mean to Limbaugh's once unvarnished reputation as the AM talk gold standard.
Just look at what would likely happen to Limbaugh in New York City, the largest radio market in America. He's currently heard on WABC-AM, which has broadcast Limbaugh for decades and has served as his unofficial flagship station in America. But Cumulus owns the station and it's one that Limbaugh would get yanked off if the two sides can't come to an agreement. Where would Limbaugh likely end up in New York? On WOR-AM, a talk station that Clear Channel purchased last year, many observers believed, as a way to make sure Limbaugh would have a New York home if his deal ended at WABC-AM.
So what's wrong with Limbaugh moving to WOR-AM? Only the fact that the station's currently a ratings doormat, ranked 25th in that market with less than half the audience of WABC-AM. Yes, it's likely Limbaugh would improve that station's ratings if he moved over there. But at this stage in his career for Limbaugh to have to start over in the most important radio market in the country and do it on such a low-rated station? If you don't think that kind of demotion would sting, you don't understand the oversized egos that fuel talk radio in America.
The move to lowly WOR-AM would also call into question why debt-ridden Clear Channel opted to boost Limbaugh's salary by an astounding 40 percent in 2009, assuring him a $400 million payday over a ten-year contract.
Then again, Limbaugh is no stranger to sagging ratings, especially in New York City. Back in his prime a decade ago, Limbaugh helped power WABC-AM to become the number five-rated station in all of New York. Today, with Limbaugh still its marquee draw, the station has fallen to number 15 in the ratings, which may explain why Cumulus is willing to negotiate his departure.
Other cities would also pose a post-Cumulus problem. In Chicago for instance, Limbaugh would get dropped from WLS (which has also seen declining ratings in recent months), and without a Clear Channel-owned talk station in the market to pick him up, Limbaugh would have to find a new AM home. But based on the current radio landscape in Chicago, there would appear to be very few logical takers. (The city's top-rated AM information stations lean heavy on news and local talk; less on right-wing syndicated hosts like Limbaugh.)
Appearing on CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday, Talkers editor Michael Harrison insisted, "Rush is going to be around as long as he wants." He added, "He'll be 90 years old and still have a show." Harrison may be right. But last week's public shaming by Cumulus will likely be remembered for years as a turning point in Limbaugh's broadcast trajectory.