Limbaugh's fans are feeling let down Tuning out: Rush has become part of the establishment, say some of his conservative "ditto heads."

January 01, 1996|By Eleanor Randolph | Eleanor Randolph,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK -- At WFLA radio station in Tampa, Fla., program manager Gabe Hobbs began to worry recently about Rush Limbaugh. During the spring and summer, Mr. Limbaugh's ratings had dropped, and fans were complaining that the big man was becoming "repetitive" or "predictable."

Even the head of a Rush Limbaugh fan club had admitted to Mr. Hobbs that he

had started skipping some of Mr. Limbaugh's show in favor of the O.J. Simpson trial.

"You hear that, you start to worry, " Mr. Hobbs says, adding hurriedly that he never worried enough to consider replacing the three-hour Limbaugh show. "Rush remains a big star even if his numbers have dropped slightly."

Indeed, Mr. Limbaugh's radio audience is still massive -- more than 20 million listeners each week on more than 650 stations around the country. And his television show, while it has suffered a dip in ratings, continues to lure thousands of fans to "Rush rooms" in bars, airports and restaurants around the country, where they gather to watch him dispense his views.

Still, there is a faint whiff of trouble in Mr. Limbaugh's formidable kingdom, and at least some fans and fellow radio hosts say they discern a reason: Mr. Limbaugh has changed.

The daily show has fewer biting political jokes and thundering diatribes, complain some of his followers. There are more lectures, analyses. And even though there is still the occasional Rush lyric -- satirical songs about President Clinton remain a staple -- the tone is softer, as some friends see it.

At his highest dudgeon, Mr. Limbaugh often now sounds like a congressman expressing official outrage on the floor of the House of Representatives. In sum, the Mr. Limbaugh, 44, is now a member of the conservative political establishment.

"When Rush started on the air, he was the voice of rebel conservatism," says Randall Bloomquist, news-talk editor at Radio & Records newspaper. "He was ranting against the Congress and those dopey liberals. Now he's come down out of the mountains, and he's part of the conservative provisional government.

"He's having to defend people in government instead of always being on the attack. That's a very different game," Mr. Bloomquist says.

This change brings a trade-off: In his new mode as interpreter and cheerleader for the Republican majority, Mr. Limbaugh has vastly more influence than ever in the corridors of power.

Mr. Limbaugh's radio ratings are hard to quantify, but program managers in some areas of the country have begun complaining about a slight dip in numbers. His television show is also slightly down from its 1994 perch, when Nielsen ratings ranked the show eighth of 15 syndicated talk shows, with an average of 4.06 million viewers per show.

This year's numbers put Mr. Limbaugh ninth among 25 syndicated shows, with about 2.9 million viewers.

The numbers have prompted a few key stations to move the show to a less desirable time slot or even drop it altogether.

Those changes could be an early indication of trouble. "If you make too much money, get too much power, that chokes you a little bit on talk radio," says Dee Fine, a Birmingham, Ala., talk show host who sees herself as a beneficiary of the Limbaugh phenomenon. Mr. Limbaugh is "part of the establishment now."

One reason for this distance between Rush and the little man on the other end of the radio may be that Mr. Limbaugh makes about $25 million a year.

Mr. Limbaugh, who likes to belittle the "liberal media" and routinely avoids face-to-face talks with reporters, declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a recent exchange with radio hosts on WABC in Manhattan, Mr. Limbaugh seemed to be explaining his new status at the same time he was chiding some of his fellow broadcast personalities for their behavior.

"If you do start having influence," he said, "then the need for a conscious responsibility for what you say is critical. Some have bought into the idea that you only need to be outrageous [to succeed on the air], and that is not good."

There is plenty of evidence Mr. Limbaugh moves easily in Washington's inner circles. Recently listeners heard him call House Speaker Newt Gingrich's office to pass along a caller's compliment to "Mr. Newt," as Mr. Limbaugh calls him. As Mr. Limbaugh chatted with a staff member, he could be heard trying to stop the aide from interrupting the speaker. "Oh, no, don't get him out of a meeting," Mr. Limbaugh cooed. "Just tell him next time you see him."

By contrast with Mr. Limbaugh, some talk show hosts -- in styles that range from provocative to abusive -- see any government, even a conservative Congress, as the adversary. Mr. Limbaugh now often ridicules the ultra-outsiders.

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