As the industry mourns the loss of talk radio trailblazer Rush Limbaugh, it’s more than his enduring impact on the medium and his power to shape political discourse that’s being remembered. Those close to Limbaugh, who died Wednesday morning after a year-long battle with stage 4 lung cancer, describe him as an unrelenting patriot with a generous spirit who quietly donated millions to charity.
“Rush was an extraordinary man, a gentle giant, brilliant, quick-witted, genuinely kind, extremely generous, passionate, courageous, and the hardest working person I know,” his wife Kathryn Rogers said, announcing his passing on air Wednesday. “Despite being one of the most recognized, powerful people in the world, Rush never let the success change his core or beliefs.”
Kraig Kitchin, who worked with Limbaugh since January 1998, had a close relationship with the talk radio pioneer. “Today’s a day in which to honor Rush Limbaugh’s impact and presence in the lives of so many Americans who have made it their habit to listen to their friend on the radio, each and every day,” Kitchin told Inside Radio Wednesday. “Rush epitomized excellence in all he did on and off the air.”
‘So Different From Anything I Ever Heard’
Melanie Morgan, a former talk show host at KSFO San Francisco who worked with Limbaugh early in his career at KUDL Kansas City, called him a “perfect gentleman” who was “very kind to me.” When Limbaugh moved to Sacramento to launch his talk radio career at KFBK, Morgan asked her boss at KGO San Francisco to give the fledgling talker a listen. “I thought he was really so different from anything that I had ever heard on the radio that I recommended him for a job as a talk show host,” Morgan recalled. Limbaugh never got the KGO gig but that didn’t stop him. “He used it to springboard onto the national scene,” Morgan said.
Over the years, Limbaugh donated more than $1 million to Morgan’s Move America Forward, making him the largest donor in the history of the charity, which supports the U.S. Armed Forces.
Scott Herman, Chairman of the Broadcasters Foundation of America, called Limbaugh one of the foundation’s biggest financial supporters. “His generosity allowed the Broadcasters Foundation to continue its mission of helping colleagues in acute need across the country,” Herman said. “We are grateful for the support he provided. America has lost one of its most preeminent broadcasters and charitable individuals.”
‘A Deep, Personal Loss’
Tom Tradup, who gave Limbaugh’s syndicated show its first top 10 market clearance in 1989 at WLS Chicago, said initial reaction to the show in the Windy City was underwhelming. “He just sat there for almost two years like the movie ’Flatliners.’ But once he kicked in, Rush rocketed WLS to No. 1 in his daypart among talk stations and never looked back.”
Like others absorbing the news of his death, Tradup, VP of News & Talk Programming at Salem Radio Network, acknowledged the profound impact Limbaugh had on talk radio. “His death is a deep, personal loss and a blow to the talk radio industry, which literally would not exist today if Rush Hudson Limbaugh hadn’t turned the moribund AM band around and electrified American conservatives from coast-to-coast,” Tradup said.
Limbaugh’s impact on radio, the AM band in particular, is unparalleled. “Rush single handedly saved AM radio and made it thrive as never before,” said news/talk radio consultant Greg Moceri, who praised the host’s ability to connect with listeners with nothing more than a single mic in a room. “He also saved and grew the numbers of people who thrived in the spoken word business 10-fold for three decades,” Moceri continued.
Phil Boyce, Senior VP/Spoken Word Format at Salem Media Group, first heard Limbaugh’s syndicated show in 1988. “I was instantly mesmerized,” Boyce recalls. “He had this unique ability to relate to what the normal listener was thinking. When you heard him the first time you had this ‘eureka’ moment. You knew he was going to make a difference. He caught on so fast that he revolutionized the AM band, and turned around the fortunes of hundreds of stations fortunate enough to grab him.”
NAB President Gordon Smith called Limbaugh “a trailblazer on broadcast radio who brought a vast listenership to radio in general and to the AM band in particular.”
Meet Rusty Sharpe
Born in Cape Girardeau, MO on Jan. 12, 1951, Rush Hudson Limbaugh III did his first radio show in high school, under the name of Rusty Sharpe. After dropping out of Southeast Missouri State, he began a nomadic radio existence, starting in music radio with gigs at such stations as “Solid Rockin’ Gold” WIXZ McKeesport, PA. The talk radio breakthrough came in 1984, when he landed at KFBK Sacramento and started to build a following.
Limbaugh’s style of conservative talk was greatly aided by the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. “Ronald Reagan tore down this wall in 1987 (maybe as spring training for Berlin) and Rush Limbaugh was the first man to proclaim himself liberated from the East Germany of liberal media domination,” Daniel Henninger wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2005.
Limbaugh and his partners launched “The Rush Limbaugh Show" Aug. 1, 1988 with 56 radio stations, and in just a few months, an additional 100 affiliates were added, paving the way for the expansion of the talk radio format. His rhetoric during the 1994 election is credited with helping sell Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America to voters, enabling Republicans to gain majorities in the House and Senate.
In 2008, he signed a new eight-year contract that paid him $50 million a year. “I’m not retiring until every American agrees with me,” he said at the time. “The Rush Limbaugh Show” marked its 32nd year in national syndication in August 2020.
Waking Up Talk Radio
When Limbaugh’s show went national, it “exploded out of the speakers with energy, wit, bombast, and showbiz,” says Bill Hess, VP/NewsTalk at Cumulus Media. “It was a show, it was entertainment. And he woke up the talk radio genre, for which we all owe him a massive debt of gratitude.”
Talk radio consultant Holland Cooke remembers Limbaugh as the leader of the “the Talk Radio Revolution that repurposed AM radio when music moved to FM.” But Limbaugh was “a mixed blessing,” Cook adds. “He demonstrated the convenience of syndicated programming to corporate owners cash-strapped post-consolidation. And radio became less-local just as digital competitors had begun diverting listening time and advertising dollars.”
Radio and TV host Sean Hannity posited that talk radio and Fox News, where Hannity is the top rated host, wouldn’t exist without Limbaugh. “He literally did something that nobody at the time ever thought was possible, you know, to give some context to this,” Hannity said on his Wednesday show. “He's changed the hearts and minds of a lot of generations of Americans single handedly.”
Hannity also brought up Limbaugh’s charitable giving, something the host shied away from talking about. “He raised tens and tens and tens of millions of dollars” for the leukemia society during the course of his life, Hannity said.
View a video tribute to Limbaugh from Art Vuolo HERE.