Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke have provided an embarrassment and a revenue sink for his employer, Clear Channel, which has had to contend with increasing numbers of advertisers who have pulled out of advertising on Limbaugh’s show. And as Limbaugh has continued to magnify his own woes, first with an anemic apology about his word choice, and then with an incoherent Twitter campaign against his critics, the signs are clear that Limbaugh’s position as an icon of the right might no longer be secure. In Limbaugh’s self-inflicted wounds lie the opportunity for a conservative rival to emerge—and for a rival network to Clear Channel to scoop up an enormous amount of money.
That rival talker is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and the rival network is Cumulus Media. “The Mike Huckabee Show” launches on April 9, and Cumulus is eager to sign up radio stations to carry it. The opportunity for them is two-fold: if stations decide to drop Limbaugh, there’s an obvious opening for them to carry Huckabee’s show instead. But even if they don’t, most of the local station contracts with Limbaugh are exclusive: another station in the same market can’t carry him. In the past, that meant the station had snagged itself a prize. In the future, it might look more like they’re saddled with a cigar-smoking albatross.
Cumulus Media’s seized that opportunity, telling stations that don’t have Limbaugh now and that might choose not to reup their contracts to carry him in the future, that in Huckabee, they’ve got a better alternative. The company’s distributed a list of 31 advertisers who have asked that their spots not be affiliated with any Limbaugh-related programming. And they’re pitching Huckabee’s show by telling stations it’ll offer “more conversation, less confrontation.”
In a few weeks, we’ll start to see if that strategy works. And even if it does, Huckabee’s tone may be different from Limbaugh’s, but that doesn’t mean his positions—with a few exceptions like childhood obesity and arts education—will vary much from the man he has a chance to dethrone. But as radio stations reassess their budgets, they might want to reconsider whether Limbaugh’s once-vaunted brand will continue to be worth it to them at the end of the next contract they sign. More than 140 advertisers have already made that assessment and decided to move on.