David Frum: Mike Huckabee Brings on Rush Limbaugh's Decline

Mike Huckabee. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Over 25 years in radio, Rush Limbaugh’s dominance of the AM dial has become a fact of American life.

Until, maybe, now.

Yes, Limbaugh’s tirade against law student Sandra Fluke has been a problem, inspiring more than 30 advertisers to flee his radio program in the past two weeks. But on April 2, Limbaugh will face a more-serious challenge. That’s when the new Mike Huckabee show launches on 100 stations in Limbaugh’s very own noon-to-3 time slot.

Huckabee’s competition threatens Limbaugh not only because Huckabee has already proven himself an attractive and popular TV broadcaster, but also because Huckabee is arriving on the scene at a time when Limbaugh’s business model is crashing around him.

To understand the power of Huckabee’s challenge to Limbaugh, you have to understand the strange economics of talk radio. Most talk-radio programs offer radio stations this deal: we’ll give you three hours of content for free. (Some programs—cough, Glenn, cough, Beck—have actually offered to pay radio stations to accept their content.) Those three hours will include 54 minutes of ad time. That ad time is split between the radio station and the show: each gets 27 minutes to sell.

In this world, Limbaugh is unique. He actually charges radio stations for his content: up to $1 million a year in a major market. Plus, he charges the highest ad rates in the business. Those two revenue streams—multiplied by more radio outlets than anybody else in the industry has—have made Limbaugh a very rich man. But those revenue streams always depended on Limbaugh upholding his end of the bargain: delivering the audiences. And on that count, Limbaugh has been notably failing.

As The Daily Beast’s John Avlon reported last week, the audience for right-wing talk has been shrinking since 2009. In some urban markets, Limbaugh’s audience has dropped by as much as half over the past three years. Limbaugh and other right-wing talkers have responded to this economic squeeze by a strategy familiar to Republican politicians: they have played to the base.

But even more than the total size of the audience, radio advertisers care about a measure called TSL: time spent listening. The people who listen longest are of course the most ideologically intense.

Here’s how this operates in the real world. Limbaugh knows that his share of big markets like Dallas or Atlanta has dropped from his old 5 percent in any given hour to, say, 3 percent. But if he can entice that 3 percent to listen twice as long, he can more than make up the loss.

That imperative explains why Limbaugh kept talking about Sandra Fluke for so long. He was boosting his TSL to compensate for his dwindling market share. Few things boost TSL like getting the old folks agitated over how much sexy sex these shameless young hussies are having nowadays. (And make no mistake: Limbaugh’s audience is very old. One station manager quipped to me, “The median age of Limbaugh’s audience? Deceased.”)

This background may explain why so many of Limbaugh’s advertisers bolted for the exits when the Fluke rampage went wrong for Limbaugh. It wasn’t social conscience: Limbaugh has said offensive things before. It wasn’t social media: Facebook and Twitter existed back in 2009, when Limbaugh explained how the Obama presidency had emboldened black schoolkids to beat up whites on schoolbuses.

The difference this time is that Limbaugh’s advertisers and his stations had already begun to feel ripped off. To quote my station-manager friend again: “I don’t mind paying for content. But I do mind paying for trouble.” So advertisers revolted against the TSL strategy, with Sears, JCPenney, and many other sponsors dropping the show. Many of the local advertisers who buy their ads from the local stations rather than from the syndicators have been ordering that their purchased minutes be placed on some less-controversial program.

Limbaugh, it’s true, remains a big talk-radio star. He’s seen trouble before and rarely apologized for it. He could assume that even if Sears had departed forever, core talk-radio advertisers—LegalZoom, Stamps.com, Sleep Number beds—must sooner or later return to the No. 1 show in talk radio.

However, Limbaugh’s calculation that his core advertisers must return always rested on the assumption that there was nowhere else to go. Suddenly, in the worst month of Limbaugh’s career, somewhere else has appeared: a lower-priced alternative, with big audience reach and a host an advertiser can trust never, ever to abuse a student as a “slut” and “prostitute.”

The new Huckabee show’s slogan is “more conversation; less confrontation.” “I don’t want it to be a show that every day, every hour, pushes everyone’s buttons to raise their blood pressure,” Huckabee says. “I figure the cost of high blood pressure is enough already.”

Huckabee’s politics are emphatically conservative of course, both on social and economic issues. Yet his politics differ in important ways from those of the Limbaugh-influenced Republican electorate. “I don’t see a pathway for a person of my point of view getting through the land mine of the Republican primary. If that were to change in four years, if the Republicans were to get more serious about governing, not just campaigning—if we focused on what we were for and not just what we were against—then I might be a viable candidate.”

The less-strident Huckabee approach arises both from his experience as a long-serving governor in a Democratic-leaning state and from Huckabee’s famously genial temperament. “I have to believe that there are people who are highly opinionated but who actually find it informative and engaging to find out what the other side is thinking,” he says. “And not through a shouting match, but through an adult-level, civil conversation.”

The approach also reflects a business strategy as cleareyed as Limbaugh’s “play to the base.” Limbaugh’s audience not only skews old; it skews male. It was already 72 percent male in 2009—more male than that of almost any other program on radio or TV. Advertisers are not nearly as interested in talking to old men as to middle-aged women. If Huckabee can draw such women to his new program, as he has drawn them to his TV show, he will reshape the market.

Huckabee explains his appeal as driven by his choice of topic. “I want to do a show that has politics. But I don’t want a 100 percent political show.” It’s also a matter of tone and style. Limbaugh’s lascivious “joke” about wishing to see a Sandra Fluke sex tape was only the latest in a career of demeaning and prurient remarks. Only a few days beforehand, Huckabee was sitting down with Meryl Streep for a warm and easy talk before a studio audience.

Rush Limbaugh won’t vanish from the radio of course. But the overpriced Limbaugh program is highly vulnerable to economic shocks. “If just one station in a top-20 market replaces Limbaugh with Huckabee, it’ll be an earthquake,” remarks a veteran of the radio business.

And you can already hear the first tremors.

Editor's Note: This story was updated on March 22 to reflect new information about Glenn Beck's radio program.