So who now takes the place of Rush Limbaugh as the media ringmaster of the right?
The answer, most likely, is nobody.
That is not because Limbaugh, who died Wednesday (US time) at 70, was uniquely talented among conservative broadcasters, although his popularity and influence on American politics surely rank him in the highest tier.
Limbaugh almost single-handedly created a right-wing mass-media universe — with its knee-jerk hatred of Democrats, mocking nicknames and own-the-libs glee — that allowed him to imprint his grievances and goals on the national debate. About 15 million people a week tuned in for his daily three-hour programme.
But Limbaugh's monopoly on outrage was fractured by a thousand rivals.
Fox News, which Sean Hannity acknowledged would very likely not exist without Limbaugh paving the way, became hugely influential in mainstream Republican politics. Younger MAGA devotees are more likely to download popular podcasts from Ben Shapiro and Dan Bongino than try to catch Limbaugh's live broadcasts on the radio at lunch break. Once the enfant terrible of conservatives, El Rushbo sometimes sounded tame when compared with conspiracy sites like Gateway Pundit and Infowars, which engaged in harder-edged rhetoric to the delight of Donald Trump and his fans.
All of which means that whichever conservative pundit inherits Limbaugh's golden microphone is unlikely to command quite the same sway. Jimmy Fallon may host "The Tonight Show," but he'll never be Johnny Carson.
"There's so many different platforms to interact with conservative voices, and there are so many more voices," said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and longtime press aide to Mitt Romney.
"If you're pro-Trump, you've got Breitbart and Newsmax. If you're more of a moderate Republican, you've got The Bulwark and Charlie Sykes," Williams continued. "I follow 25-, 26-year-old conservatives on Instagram who are sharing two-minute videos that young people connect with personally."
He added, "I don't think you'll see it ever again where one person is the king of this realm."
Today America lost a Giant with the passing of Rush Limbaugh, and Karen and I send our most heartfelt sympathies to Kathryn, his brother David, and the millions of Americans who loved and cherished his incomparable voice. pic.twitter.com/tGlhCiY7g6— Mike Pence (@Mike_Pence) February 17, 2021
iHeartMedia, the Texas-based radio conglomerate run by a chief executive in New York, Bob Pittman, controls the fate of "The Rush Limbaugh Show," which appears on roughly 600 stations nationwide. For now, the syndicator is rebroadcasting the "Best of Rush," introduced by a rotating group of guest hosts.
"Please note that we will continue with this transitional programming until his audience is prepared to say goodbye," Premiere Networks, the iHeartMedia subsidiary that employed Limbaugh, said in a statement.
Michael Harrison, publisher of industry magazine Talkers, said that many affiliates had signed contracts specific to Limbaugh's role as host. So some stations could choose to stop airing the Limbaugh programme entirely, regardless of who sits in the chair.
"It's starting over," Harrison said in an interview, noting that conservative radio consumers can simply switch to other popular Limbaugh-like hosts, including Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin. (iHeartMedia might not mind: It also syndicates Beck and Hannity.)
Limbaugh's success may have ensured his show's eventual obsolescence.
He was the first conservative icon in national media, bringing an ideology more closely associated with elite organs like National Review to a mass audience. His shock-jock antics infuriated Democratic presidents and endeared himself to Republican ones; as early as 1992, President George HW Bush invited him to the White House to spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Before Fox News and the MAGA internet, Limbaugh's programme was the only megaphone for his divisive, hyperpartisan brand of commentary. "There's something magical about the intimacy of radio that younger readers simply cannot possibly appreciate," commentator Matt Lewis wrote in The Daily Beast after Limbaugh's death, echoing other conservatives who reminisced about childhood listening sessions.
There is no doubt his show remained influential with the Slightly Less Online set, particularly among working-class listeners whose jobs might not afford nonstop access to a social media platform during the business day. Limbaugh even scored some headlines in December when he mused that the nation might be "trending toward secession".
But Limbaugh's latter-day commentary — while still ribald and unrepentant — was often indistinguishable from that of dozens of other pundits.
"He created the genre, which then flooded the market with competitors, some less talented, some more," said Ann Coulter, the conservative provocateur. "Only one person can be the pioneer — but after that, it's dog-eat-dog." (Even Fox News, which long enjoyed a monopoly on conservative TV, has now been forced to contend with upstart rivals like Newsmax that appeal to far-right viewers.)
Because he depended on a publicly traded conglomerate for his paycheque, Limbaugh was also beholden to the kinds of corporate guidelines that fringier online platforms could happily ignore. After the election, Limbaugh defended Trump's lies about voter fraud — and as late as Inauguration Day, insisted that Joe Biden "didn't win this thing fair and square" — but he stopped short of explicitly calling for violence. It was a guest on "The Alex Jones Show" who explicitly called for supporters to "occupy the Capitol."
And whereas Fox News segments from Tucker Carlson might go viral on social media, be covered by major newspapers and generate a barrage of commentary, Limbaugh's shows rarely set the agenda for the rest of the press. His producers posted sporadic transcripts, but audio could be hard to find. His monologues were meandering — totally acceptable for a three-hour radio show, but hard to clip and share online.
When Trump appeared on Limbaugh's show in October for a two-hour talkathon, some White House reporters struggled to figure out how to stream it live.
Notably, Limbaugh was not personally active on Twitter, which emerged in the past decade as the primary battleground where conservatives hashed out the future of their movement. Belatedly, Limbaugh started a personal account in October, but he seemed unfamiliar with the form. After reading some of the replies to his @RealRLimbaugh account, the host had a bit of an OK Boomer moment: "Some of you people are just funny as could be, and some of you people are obviously sewer dwellers," he said.
The right-wing media world is more powerful than ever, in large part thanks to Limbaugh's contributions. But several conservatives interviewed for this article agreed that only one political broadcaster could actually retain a Rush-size megaphone.
"The only person who might keep part of that audience is Donald Trump, and I don't know if he wants to do three hours a day every single day," said Eric Bolling, the former Fox News and Sinclair host who is friendly with the former president. "That's a lot of work."
Rumours that Trump might start a post-presidential media venture have swirled for months, although those prospects have dimmed since the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. On Friday, a spokeswoman for iHeartMedia said that Premiere Networks was not considering Trump as a replacement for Limbaugh.
Still, some can dream. Greg Kelly, the resolutely pro-Trump Newsmax anchor, asked the former president during an on-air interview Wednesday if he could imagine himself pontificating for three hours a day to millions of listeners.
"That is one of those little things that keeps popping up," Trump replied, after a pause. "But you wouldn't want to follow Rush. It's the old story: You get somebody like that, you don't want to follow them, because some things just can't be done."
Trump, who watched his own "Celebrity Apprentice" franchise struggle under a successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, offered one last bit of advice: "He'd be a hard one to replace."
Written by: Michael M Grynbaum
Photographs by: Anna Moneymaker
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