Vanity Fair Projects Limbaugh Audience Will Crumble -- Based on Air America Exec's Expertise?

If you want to argue that Rush Limbaugh the radio sensation will soon crumble and fail, that he's headed for a "last hurrah," would you sign up as your expert....an Air America executive? That’s what media critic Michael Wolff did in a Vanity Fair article on Limbaugh, "the man who ate the GOP." Rush has power now, but soon he won’t:

Arguably no message apparatus like it exists in the nation, except, perhaps, at the White House (or in Oprah—whose position with American women is curiously analogous to Rush’s position with American conservatives). It is concentrated and extraordinary power.

Except that this power ought to be ending. It ought to all be on the wane. It is not just the Obama victory and the magnitude of his approval ratings. It is not just that the gravity of the economic crisis, with historic unemployment rates, means it’s a lot harder to get people excited about Reagan-and-Rush-esque hands-off government.

It is, rather, a crueler demographic point. The dirty little secret of conservative talk radio is that the average age of listeners is 67 and rising, according to [former Air America guru Jon] Sinton—the Fox News audience, likewise, is in its mid-60s: "What sort of continuing power do you have as your audience strokes out?"

You can begin to make plausibly large statements about the end of—or at least a crisis in—conservative media. "There are fewer advertisers, fewer listeners, shrinking networks, shallower penetration," says Sinton. "A lowering tide lowers all ships."

What’s more, it’s the Internet that is the fast-growing and arguably more powerful political medium—and it is the province of the young and liberal. The only sensible market view of conservative talk is that it will contract and be reduced, in the coming years, to a much more rarefied format.

If Sinton were such an expert, wouldn't he still be "growing" Air America past Limbaugh's audience? Barack Obama telling Republicans not to listen to that Rush junk put a crimp in liberal expectations, as even Wolff admitted:

And yet, by the end of Rush Limbaugh’s fractious month of calculated outrage, his audience was back up to 20 million.

Wolff lamented how his E-mail server was downed by a Limbaugh wave: "Shortly after the war in Iraq began, when I was reporting from CentCom headquarters in Qatar, I asked an intemperate question of one of the military briefers in the daily televised news conference and, dissed by Rush for my lack of patriotism, got the full effect: more than 20,000 e-mails in 48 hours, shutting down my mail server."

But Wolff still ended on the theme of wishful thinking, that no one under retirement age listens to Limbaugh. It sounds like a good reason to mint new dittoheads among the young:

A kinder, gentler Republican consensus would be much worse for the Rush brand and business model than even an F.D.R.-type era of Democratic dominance.

Rush is so much more lively, scary, jaw-dropping, and fabulous when he’s on the attack. Add to this that he might actually be crazy—the big fear of the moderates—that it isn’t showmanship but a train wreck that we’re all watching, one in which he takes everyone with him. "How far will he go? You don’t know what might come out of his mouth. What if he truly goes to war against the leadership? He could, you know, if he wanted to just split the party. Walk out with the hard-core conservatives. He could and he knows it," said my moderate-Republican interlocutor.

At least he can until the demographic reality catches up with him. "It’s a last hurrah," says Sinton, "because it isn’t and has never been first and foremost about politics. It’s always been about radio. And that endgame is written."

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis