WBAL Radio cancels Rush Limbaugh

Station is first to drop show, wants to focus on local news

March 14, 2006|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN REPORTER

Rush Limbaugh, one of the most popular and polarizing radio personalities of recent years, has been sacked in Baltimore.

WBAL-AM Radio has canceled Limbaugh's syndicated call-in talk show, saying it wants to focus on local news and hosts. It is the first station to cancel the show, which is heard in nearly 600 markets, according to Limbaugh's syndicate, Premiere Radio Networks.

"In this market at this time, we just think we can perform better without him," said Jeff Beauchamp, station manager and vice president at WBAL. "It was a great run, though."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section yesterday misstated the number of Rush Limbaugh's listeners. His nationally syndicated radio show has nearly 20 million listeners a week.
The Sun regrets the errors.

After a decade in Baltimore, the conservative talk-show host will no longer be heard on WBAL after May 31. Sandwiched between local hosts Chip Franklin and Ron Smith, Limbaugh has been a WBAL mainstay in its noon-to-3 p.m. time slot. WBAL, fourth among adults in its market and fifth among listeners age 12 and older, has seen Limbaugh's ratings decline. According to Arbitron, which rates radio stations, Limbaugh's audience share on WBAL dropped 27 percent last fall compared to fall 2004.

Limbaugh, however, was No. 1 for his time slot among adult males, Beauchamp said. "But his ratings are not at the lofty level they once were.

"There's no doubt Rush is an American icon," he said. "It's not a personal thing, it's not a political thing. It's about being successful and giving listeners want they want."

Station research has shown WBAL listeners want more local news coverage and more local voices discussing community issues, Beauchamp said. Radio has become "homogenized and vanilla," and a syndicated program, such as Limbaugh's, does not fit into the station's plans for expanded local coverage, he said.

Limbaugh's departure doesn't necessarily signal that Baltimore has lost its taste for conservative radio, Beauchamp said. "Ron Smith is conservative," he said. "People still have a taste for conservative radio. Rush is an individual taste."

Jayson Loviglio, an assistant professor of American studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said yesterday that he credits Limbaugh with inventing a new style of radio talk-show host, but that his cancellation in Baltimore might have been inevitable.

"Rush was really the Elvis of right-wing talk radio. But you just don't need him anymore with so many other places to get what Rush brought before anyone had it," said Loviglio, whose 2005 book, Radio's Intimate Public, discusses how the medium shapes American life and popular culture. "If this is a trend, he's a victim of his own success, because he's no longer a voice in the wilderness."

WBAL's decision to expand local coverage makes sense if local radio is to survive, Loviglio said. Listeners can get opinions from podcasts and other newer media outlets, but who is going to talk about electric rate increases or local athletes? Not a syndicated talk-show host, he said.

"WBAL is actually starting an important trend," he said. "The only thing broadcast radio has to offer in the next 10 years is localism -- as in providing voices of people from your community talking about issues from your community.

"There's no other point of broadcast radio."

Despite losing one local affiliate, Limbaugh remains popular nationwide.

He is heard by an estimated 2 million weekly listeners on nearly 600 radio stations, and the number of his affiliates has remained consistent, according to Premiere Radio Networks.

"The station decided to go all local, so the syndicated program goes -- whether it's the biggest talent in the business or somebody else," said Premiere spokeswoman Amir Forester. "We're looking forward to announcing a new home in the near future."

Premiere said Limbaugh will air on another station June 1, but declined to elaborate. Limbaugh is still carried on Maryland radio affiliates in Frederick, Frostburg and Salisbury.

Tim Graham, an analyst with the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, also played down the significance of the Limbaugh cancellation in Baltimore. "If you have 600 stations, losing one market is not something to worry about. If you go from 600 to 500, then you have a story," Graham said. He added that Limbaugh's publicized hearing loss in 2001 and rehab stint in 2003 were more cause for concern about the state of conservative radio.

"Those were moments when you could really worry, but I don't think now is one of those times," he said.

Still, Beauchamp said, WBAL's cancellation of Limbaugh's show was a "bold move." Over its 15-year history, The Rush Limbaugh Show has gone off the air in markets where radio stations have switched formats. But this is the first time his show has been canceled, according to his syndication company.

The radio station posted its new lineup on its Web site yesterday -- along with a reminder that Limbaugh can be heard through May 31, and listeners can hear his show on his Web site. Limbaugh's departure will mean expanded programs for talk-show hosts Franklin and Smith. Beginning June 1, Franklin's program will air from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Smith will add an hour to his program, airing from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. WBAL-AM Edition, a 5 a.m.-to-5:30 a.m. news program, will also debut in June.

rob.hiaasen@baltsun.com

Local radio

Top five rated Baltimore-area radio stations (based on audience share of listeners 12 and older):

1. WERQ-FM -- urban contemporary

2. WPOC-FM -- country

3. WLIF-FM -- adult contemporary

4. WWIN-FM -- urban adult contemporary

5. WBAL-AM -- news talk information

[Source: Arbitron, Fall 2005]

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