Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke and the subsequent fallout has shaken up the lucrative industry of conservative talk radio with senior radio executives concerned about its future.
As a result of public pressure, more than 100 sponsors have already pulled ads from Limbaugh's show, raising fears that action will spread to other provocative hosts like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage.
“They are going to leave Rush’s show, Glenn Beck’s show, and I would think Hannity would be on that list too,” Norman Pattiz, founder of Courtside Entertainment Group and Westwood One, told TheWrap.
Kim Vasey, managing partner and director of radio at GroupM, a major advertising agency, does not buy advertising to the Limbaugh show but estimates that it has lost at least 50 percent of its advertising revenue. But the impact reaches further, as other nationally known shock jocks will lose money as well.
“When you have a situation that does escalate to the level this has, you will generally see a pull back for the category in political talk,” Vasey said. “Everybody wants to be much more aware and sensitive to any backlash that will trickle down to other political talk show hosts.”
Advertisers started fleeing Limbaugh’s show in late February after he referred to Fluke, a contraception activist, as a "slut" and a "prostitute."
Limbaugh apologized, but that did not mollify his many critics. On Monday, his talk show syndicator, Premiere Networks, took the unusual step of withdrawing national advertising spots from his and other talk shows for two weeks. Premiere suspended what are called 'barter ads," spots the network gets in exchange for giving local stations Limbaugh’s show.
But a senior radio executive noted that the fallout appears to be growing. “They’re not saying it’s blowing over, it’s spreading,” he told TheWrap.
Premiere declined to comment for this story.
While angry advertisers are not uncommon for controversial hosts like Limbaugh, the barter suspension is another matter.
"I've just never seen that," Tom Taylor, executive news editor of trade publication radio.info, told TheWrap. "The people I’ve talked to have never seen that."
Limbaugh's team doesn't seem worried. Spokesman Brian Glicklich told TheWrap that any talk of a huge shift away from conservative talkers is a lot of hot air.
"It sounds like someone’s wishful thinking more than a potential reality," Glicklich said. "It sounds like someone’s really, really, really wishful thinking."
He argued that none of the advertisers Premiere withdrew were “Rush advertisers.” In fact, Glicklich said, Limbaugh doesn't even have 100 advertisers who buy specifically for his show. Most of the lost advertisers buy from the local station or from general "news/talk" networks.
Still, Vasey said, there is no question that the show is losing money.
"Certainly it’s a considerable loss of money" Vasey said. "It will be quite a bit of time before advertisers will come back — several months, not just weeks."
Also read: Rush Limbaugh: His Greatest (or Worst) Hits
Few can argue that Limbaugh has ever faced backlash like this before.
“As we were with [Don] Imus, we’re in uncharted waters,” Taylor said. Imus got fired from MSNBC and CBS Radio in 2007 for referring to the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."
The "slut" comment fallout has continued in part because Limbaugh's opposition has taken advantage of social media.
“The curtain has been thrown back," Taylor said, noting that Twitter and other forms of social media have exploded in recent years. There was no Twitter when Imus stuck his foot in his mouth.
In fact, Taylor said, conversation on Twitter likely nudged Premiere to reveal information in a memo it released on Monday.
That memo explained that 98 advertisers like Ford, Geico and Subway, have specifically asked that stations schedule their ads on "programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial (for example, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity)."
Even Glicklich acknowledged that this campaign against Limbaugh is more powerful than prior attempts.
"Each time this happens the opposition is better organized and uses pressure tools more effectively," he said. “They take lessons from other pressure advocacies.”
And the Limbaugh controversy puts other political talk shows under scrutiny. The big question is how long this lasts. Pattiz said the real danger will come if advertisers decide to cease working with stations that carry Limbaugh, or a Beck, Hannity or Savage.
If enough advertisers pull their spots from local stations, those stations could turn to alternative types of programming. “They are not only concerned about the ability to sell the commercial time on Rush Limbaugh," Pattiz said. "They are concerned about what kind of spillover effect it will have on the other 20 hours a day that they program.”
If enough stations have to pull Limbaugh, that would threaten all controversial hosts.
“It’s not just Rush, it’s controversial and potentially offensive programming,” Taylor said.
In the meantime, it's an uncomfortable period of wait-and-see for advertisers and radio executives.
“Many advertisers," Pattiz said, "will say the audience isn’t worth the aggravation.”
Correction: A previous version of the article said that Group M does not "sell" advertising to Limbaugh's show. It should have read "buy." TheWrap apologizes for the error.