Talk radio turmoil
Rush Limbaugh is embroiled in a public spat with Cumulus Broadcasting, owner of 40 of the biggest stations on which his show currently appears. While liberal media enjoy the spectacle of intramural conflict in the talk radio biz, this appears to be nothing more than a hardball negotiation tactic, with both sides keeping their options open. Fans of Rush and of talk radio need not worry.
Dylan Byers of Politico writes:
The Rush Limbaugh Program is considering ending its affiliation agreement with Cumulus Media at the end of this year, a move that would bring about one of the biggest shakeups in talk radio history, a source close to the show tells POLITICO.
Should the move take place, 40 Cumulus-owned radio stations would lose the rights to the most popular talk radio program in the country. In addition, the show might be picked up by competing regional radio stations in Washington, New York, Chicago, Dallas and other major markets.
According to the source, Limbaugh is considering the move because Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey has blamed the company's advertising losses on Limbaugh's controversial remarks about Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student. In Feb. 2012, Limbaugh referred to Fluke as "a slut" because she had called on congress to mandate insurance coverage of birth control. The subsequent controversy over those remarks resulted in a significant advertising boycott.
The true extent of Limbaugh's effect on Cumulus's advertising revenue is not known. In an August 2012 earnings call, Dickey said Cumulus's top three stations had lost $5.5 million, in part because of the boycott. In a March 2013 earnings call, Dickey said the company's talk radio side had "been challenged... due to some of the issues that happened a year ago." Nevertheless, Limbaugh remains the most highly rated talk radio host in the country.
The last few years have been very tough ones for those who sell advertising space, not just on talk radio, but in newspapers, magazines, and most other traditional media for two big reasons: the sluggish economy, and the rapid rise of internet-based media, which are grabbing an ever greater share of ad revenues from older media. Cumulus rose to its present prominence by acquiring the former ABC owned and operated radio stations in major cities, such as WABC in New York, WLS in Chicago, KABC in Los Angeles, and KGO/KSFO in San Francisco, among others. It must now pay for these expensive properties out of earnings generated in a very difficult advertising market.
One way to generate more earnings when it is difficult to add new advertising revenue is to cut expenses. I have no inside information on what it might cost Cumulus to carry then Limbaugh show, but one can safely wager that it is by far the most expensive property in all of radio broadcasting. Rush brings in listeners to whatever station hosts his show.
In San Francisco, Cumulus already gave up broadcasting the Rush Limbaugh Show on KSFO radio, losing the show to KKSF, a station owned by rival Clear Channel, replacing it with the Mike Huckabee Show, not so coincidentally syndicated by Cumulus itself. Should push come to shove in the current negotiations, expect the Governor to gain some powerful new outlets in major markets, and expect Limbaugh to bring new listeners to stations owned by Cumulus competitors in as many as 40 major markets.
Either way, talk radio listeners will be well served.