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Why Rush and not Franken?

Ann Althouse and her commenters muse over why Rush Limbaugh has been enormously successful and profitable while Al Franken and the rest of the Air America crowd lurched from failure to disaster to bankruptcy. This is a nice illustration of why smart commenters can do wonders for a blogger - as much as I find the "Meetings" Demotivator amusing, the truth of the matter is that the Internet can also bring a lot of smart people together with different pieces of an answer and/or different perspectives. Of course, that doesn't mean you can't find some ignorant idiots in the mix too, even at the Althouse blog.

I think there are a number of reasons why Rush succeeds where Franken failed. Some of them have to do with the fact that Limbaugh knows radio - he worked his way up from nowhere as a DJ and paid his dues in the outlands for years while he learned what worked and what didn't - and Franken came out of TV, which is much more scripted. You have to think fast when you're dealing with callers, and you don't get that kind of practice working on Saturday Night Live. Secondly, Rush is and has been operating in a target-rich environment. If your main shtick is ranking on the mainstream/drive-by media, it doesn't take that much work to come up with a dozen talking points a day, and if you're also teeing off on the wacky weirdness of the loony left, that's even more material to work with. Hollywood, on the other hand, has been mocking the God-fearing, hard-working blue-collar folks (to say nothing of the Republicans) for years on three commercial and one "non-commercial" networks, so it was hard for Franken & Co. to come up with something new that didn't sound like it came straight from the conspiracy-addled fever swamps.

It's also worth noting that very few successful talk show hosts have started at the top of the business. Most of the really successful ones (Rush, Michael Savage, Sean Hannity) started as local hosts and moved up the food chain in Rush's wake after program directors realized there was still gold in the AM hills. I think Bill Bennett and Michael Medved* are the only folks in the business to have any kind of reputation before they got into talk radio, and they're very recent arrivals on the dial. It's not an easy game to master by any means; just getting on the air and raving for three hours a day doesn't cut it.

So...Air America started without very many talk radio pros, and the ones they did have weren't exactly top-shelf talent. They tried to turn actors and rappers into talk show hosts, which didn't work very well, and they were pushing a message which could already be found on just about any other media outlet you want to name, except for the handful of radio stations carrying conservative talk radio, the Fox News cable network, and a corporal's guard of editorial pages, mostly in tabloids like the New York Post and the Boston Herald. The surprising things shouldn't have been that FrankenNet failed, but that they managed to last as long as they did.

*OK, there's Jerry Doyle, but unless you're a serious B5 geek, you've probably never heard of him.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2006 04:51 pm (UTC)
The thing that makes Rush #1 (IMHO by a wide margin) is that while serious, he is amusing and entertaining.
Oct. 16th, 2006 07:18 pm (UTC)
This would be another major difference between Rush and Al Franken, yes. ;)
Oct. 16th, 2006 05:56 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't yet completely bury Air America or Al Franken -- they're still on the air, after all, just restructuring. It's not an easy game, as you say -- after all, Rush Limbaugh himself had many failures before he became a success. And obviously, one of the things is that the experience with Partisan Talk Radio has certainly been much more on the conservative side than the liberal side, and so the experience will just have to come, and as a part of that experience will be various challenges and setbacks.

Not saying that Air America couldn't go off the air tomorrow -- but they're still there at the moment, just on the life support of Chapter 11...

Oct. 16th, 2006 07:16 pm (UTC)
I'm just leaning on my shovel waiting for the galvanic twitching to stop.

AAR has never come close to competing with Limbaugh - the majority of their outlets in the major media markets are small, underpowered and badly located. Their station-hopping here in Minnesota is a case in point: it took them a while to fetch up on 950 AM, which has a signal that can't be heard well north or east of the metro area, whereas before moving to Clear Channel's KTLK, Limbaugh was on KSTP-AM, which can be heard clear to Canada if the atmospherics are right. And this is not unusual for AAR.

As for Rush bouncing around a while before hitting his stride, this is also true. The point is that he got better. You can't really say that about Randi Rhodes, whose career has been marginal even by talk radio standards, and the rest of their talent has been even worse.
Oct. 17th, 2006 04:42 am (UTC)
One must remember that all of Rush's bouncing around was prior to becoming syndicated. He didn't just announce he was doing a national talk-radio show out of the blue and expect hundreds of stations to instantly sign up and become and instant success. Rush built his career slowly over time. I haven't listened to him for almost two years now but his career is a good study in perseverance paying off
Oct. 18th, 2006 01:56 am (UTC)
What you are forgetting about this is that while Rush starting out he wasn't hemorrhaging millions of dollars on a national campaign while still trying to learn the ropes.
That, and he actually spoke with his audience, rather than at them. Which is one of the primary reasons that AAR is failing so badly. People don't get engaged with a lecturer, they tune it out.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )



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