Amid national chatter about conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh's addiction to prescription drugs, WBAL radio found itself at the center of an industry storm this week after it pulled his syndicated show from its usual time slot and then flip-flopped on that decision.
The Hearst-owned news talk station said it decided to move Limbaugh out of the key early afternoon time slot amid worries that substitutes for the top-rated host would not be able to sustain audience loyalty and crucial fall ratings, despite fierce devotion to the show.
Some listeners applauded the move, and many balked. WBAL's initial decision to pull the program and use local hosts - the first such move among 600 radio affiliates nationwide - raised alarms in an industry worried about financial fallout, a decline in ratings and the show's survival.
"Pre-flipflop, losing Baltimore's WBAL would clearly be a negative," said James Marsh, an analyst with SG Cowen in New York. "It just sends a bad signal. You just feel the momentum sliding. You don't want multiple stations dropping the show."
One other station followed suit. Citadel Broadcasting's WPRO News Radio 630 in Providence, R.I., said yesterday afternoon that it would temporarily replace the Limbaugh show with another host.
By 5 p.m., WPRO had reversed its decision.
California syndicator Premiere Radio Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel Communications Inc., said yesterday that it had negotiated intensively with both stations. Premiere said it has heard of no other stations dropping Limbaugh and that it has no intention of losing other affiliates even temporarily.
"Obviously, no one can replace Rush Limbaugh," said Allan Mayer, a Premiere spokesman. "We're very sensitive to those concerns. Affiliate relations are very, very important, and we're constantly in contact with all the stations to address their concerns."
"There is an expectation that particularly in a situation like this, Premiere always stands by its individual stations in good times and bad times and we would hope the individual stations would stand by Premiere."
In other words, industry experts said, a lot of money is at stake, including advertising dollars, programming contracts and Wall Street performance.
On Oct. 10, the day that Limbaugh told his 20 million listeners he was checking into a drug treatment center, radio stations including WBAL were also told that lesser-known radio personalities Tom Sullivan, Roger Hedgecock and Walter Williams, from other Clear Channel stations, would fill in.
WBAL wasn't impressed. The Baltimore station decided that day to go with local favorites Chip Franklin and Ron Smith in Limbaugh's 12 p.m.-3 p.m. time slot. Limbaugh's program with guest hosts would have run overnight.
WBAL would continue to pay the fee for the right to run the Limbaugh program and run commercials it was obligated to under contract, but executives said the station did not want to take any chances during Limbaugh's absence.
"We were disappointed," said Jeffrey J. Beauchamp, WBAL-Radio's vice president and station manager. "We have talent here that is better. If you have to have a substitute, they have to be interesting and compelling and someone that our audience wants to hear. It's based pure and simple on providing a compelling talk show host that the audience wants and good ratings.
"We told them we would fill the gap ourselves," Beauchamp said. "I guess they, the syndicators, heard our concerns."
In persuading WBAL to continue running the Limbaugh show in its usual time slot, Premiere promised to replace the colorful conservative with well-known guest hosts including Fox News channel's Tony Snow and Internet-based political gossip columnist Matt Drudge.
Beauchamp said Premiere also assured the station that it was negotiating with other well-known people to serve as guest hosts.
"We now feel the show is worth airing," said Beauchamp.
Industry experts say Limbaugh's five-week stint in rehabilitation probably won't hurt ratings or stock prices, but that an extended disappearance from the airwaves could be problematic.
Limbaugh is often credited with saving AM radio and starting the rebirth of the news talk format that began in the late 1980s.
The future of his show, experts said, depends on Limbaugh's detoxification and his overcoming an investigation by the state's attorney's office in Palm Beach County, Fla., where his maid said she was his drug connection.
"The show is slightly more damaged goods now," said SG Cowen's Marsh. "Premiere definitely would have gone to someone else in the Baltimore market if 'BAL didn't run the show because someone's got to carry Rush Limbaugh. But I'm sure Premiere would not want to renegotiate with another station while Rush is in rehab. It's not a vantage point."
Stations carrying Limbaugh might also suffer a slight revenue drop during his absence, experts said. That small loss might not be felt much by bigger stations, but smaller stations could get squeezed the longer Limbaugh is out, they said.
"WBAL's the first major radio station to do that," said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a leading trade magazine for talk radio. "But the question is, who knows how quickly the others could, too? I don't think it will be widespread. Many stations don't have the resources to provide something better than the Rush Limbaugh show can provide. WBAL is a very highly regarded radio station in the industry and they are strong enough to do that.
"A station like 'BAL is not totally dependent on Rush Limbaugh," Harrison said.