ABC and the Rise of Rush Limbaugh


Rush Limbaugh


With little doubt, the two most revolutionary developments in radio in the last 40 years --- since the ascension of rock music --- have been the talk radio format, and then the conversion of that format to a politically conservative tone. No single personality is more responsible or representative of that explosive movement than Rush Limbaugh. If you ask the average informed person: "Who sponsored Limbaugh?" the answer you would probably hear would either be Clear Channel or Fox. The real and correct answer though would be ABC.

Once the Cap Cities takeover of ABC was complete, the move by ABC television to a more politically friendly stance was not abrupt or dramatic. For instance, it took until 1993 for Peter Jennings to announce in an interview with TV Guide that his nightly news show would now be paying more attention to conservatives because in his view their ideas were "more provocative and less predictable on some issues." But there was one front on which CC/ABC could move suddenly and potently and that was radio.

Why? Because CC/ABC had a huge advantage in ownership outlets that it could capitalize on. Of the 11,000 radio stations in America, CC/ABC either owned or rented space to about half of them --- an extraordinary advantage that the FCC did not challenge at the time of the purchase. Since the Fairness Doctrine had been disposed of in 1987, CC/ABC could now begin to broadcast a more conservative brand of radio without fear of being petitioned for equal time.

Edward McLaughlin, President of ABC Radio began searching for a talk show host to lead ABC's new direction. He found him in Sacramento. Limbaugh was doing an AM talk show there at the time and he was defending the actions of people like Oliver North and William Casey during the Iran-Contra scandal. McLaughlin noticed him and brought him to New York City for a one-month broadcast trial at CC/ABC's flagship station WABC. McLaughlin liked what he heard and ABC promoted him by placing him on their fast track, handling all his marketing, advertising and promotion. To provide a fig leaf for ABC, Limbaugh formed his own media company, Excellence in Broadcasting. But Limbaugh broadcast out of ABC stations for decades. And for a long time, the man who followed Limbaugh on WABC was Bob Grant who continued the tirade against "bleeding heart" liberals and once called New York's black mayor David Dinkins a "washroom attendant".

McLaughlin promoted Limbaugh initially by arranging appearances for him on other talk shows like Ted Koppel's Nightline, Donahue, MacNeil/Lehrer and a primetime, and rather fawning, interview with ABC's Barbara Walters. These appearances were all meant to give Limbaugh more mainstream exposure and publicize his show.

When Limbaugh tried to branch out into television in September of 1992, his producer was Roger Ailes, the longtime Republican strategist who specialized in attack ads, most notably in the 1988 Bush-Dukakis race. Of course, the timing of the show was on the eve of the 1992 election so many people complained that Limbaugh's show was clearly fronting for the Bush campaign and demanded equal time. Limbaugh replied "I am equal time." Of course, he is not. Limbaugh featured guests who were from his point of view, blocked out all opposing views, screened callers and their questions in advance, labeled feminists, "femiNazis" and blamed all of America's problems on "big-spending Democrats, the lazy poor and trouble-making minority rabble-rousers." He was so offensive that the show was pulled because major advertisers did not want to be a part of it. Signifcantly, the ill-fated television show was distributed by one of CC/ABC's partners, Multimedia. Recently, when Limbaugh made his comments about Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles being overrated and a beneficiary of racial sympathy, it was on another subsidiary of ABC, ESPN.

Clearly CC/ABC meant to chart a sea change in the concept of talk radio with Limbaugh's launch. This in turn made it possible for Jennings to make his 1993 comments. If one recalls the days of talk radio before the Limbaugh Revolution, it was actually a rather interesting, exploratory and sedate domain with people like Ira Fistell and Michael Jackson in Los Angeles. Limbaugh and CC/ABC made them obsolete and paved the way for the likes of Michael Savage, another talk show host so offensive that he had to be yanked from television.

We would like to add here that because a radio show is conservative in its orientation, this does not mean it is to be equated with Limbaugh or his clones. There are many conservative shows that do not have his agenda or practices. One example would be the Joyce Riley show out of St. Louis. This is a conservative show that is truly conservative --- that is, it upholds traditional American values like the Constitution, open debate, and international law. So on her show --- syndicated through 187 stations --- you will hear open debate on such issues as why the CIA and FBI could not prevent 9/11, the questions surrounding Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris and the Florida election, the use of depleted uranium by Clinton in Kosovo and Bush in Iraq, and, of course, the assassinations of both Kennedys, King and Malcolm X. We admire and salute her conservative tradition and aims. We should add that there is some of this non-debate problem with stalwarts of the left also i.e. David Barsamian, Noam Chomsky, and Alexander Cockburn. Their friends and followers have tried to eliminate or minimize this kind of open debate on the Pacifica network.

And some of their friends --- like Marc Cooper --- cross over into that other no-conspiracy zone in that other liberal outpost The Nation where Max Holland assures us that Oswald acted alone, and David Corn gives us limited hangouts on horrific scandals like the CIA and drugs. This "see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil" attitude about huge conspiratorial and covered up crimes leaves the public confused and angry about the media and the government at the same time that our doctrinaire "right and left" media tell us that conspiracy theories are eroding the public's belief in the government. The obvious truth that neither wishes to establish or state is this: there is no "left or right" when it comes to the truth about these crimes. Therefore both sides choose not to tell the truth about, for example, what happened to President Kennedy, in order to please their masters and to stay part of the so-called "mainstream debate." Which, of course, is why more and more people a) don't believe our government, and b) don't believe the media, and choose to listen to people like Riley on the right and Cynthia McKinney on the left. They know they are being lied to and want to find someone who is at least searching for the truth.

Pity the nation that has to choose, thanks to ABC, between such a polarized atmosphere.

--- Jim DiEugenio

Mr. DiEugenio would like to credit Dennis Mazzocco and his book Networks of Power for most of the material that appears in this article.


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