So much has been written and said about Rush Limbaugh this past week in the wake of his death at age 70. Much more will be said in the weeks and months ahead, as his millions of listeners and fans mourn his passing and recall the impact he had on their lives.
Rush’s death was not unexpected, of course—he’d been frank with us about losing the battle he’d been waging against his lung cancer—but that didn’t make his absence any easier to embrace. Such was his relationship with his vast audience, a relationship that cannot be quantified by the numbers alone: 27 million listeners, 600+ stations, and a compensation package worth more than the combined salaries of the big three network television personalities at the time (Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw, with Barbara Walters thrown in for good measure). Heck, even his branded “No Boundaries” collection of neckties brought in over $5,000,000 in the first year they were offered.
KQQQ-AM here in Pullman, Washington was the first station in the Pacific Northwest—and one of the first 100 stations in the country—to carry Rush Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated program that began in August 1988. It remained a fixture here for 32 years.
I recall getting a telephone call a year or so earlier from one of my advertising clients, Dr. Arthur B. Sachs, Optometrist—he had offices both in Pullman (next to the Audian Theater) and Clarkston (above Wasem’s Drug). Art had just returned from visiting relatives in California and he called to tell me about a show he’d heard on a Sacramento station. “He’s got a funny name. Rush Limbo or something like that. You guys gotta get his show,” Art said. “He’s really good!”
I didn’t know anything about “Rush Limbo” then, and it wasn’t until he hit the airwaves in Pullman that Art reminded me that this was the guy he’d heard in California. And he was, indeed, really good.
Dr. Arthur B. Sachs became a regular advertiser in Rush’s show, as did Wasem’s Drug in Clarkston. In fact, Cliff Wasem, who typically wrote and voiced his own commercials, asked me to find out what it would cost to have Rush voice a spot for him. Rush wanted $350 per spot at that time. Cliff drafted his message, which we sent along with Cliff’s check to Rush. Within a week or so, during the daily closed-circuit feed to network stations, we received this:
Was that disdain I detected in Rush’s voice when he said “here comes this…spot.” It felt like it. And he might well have preferred not to be endorsing this particular product, but once he started reading (and notice that he read it live in one take, zero mistakes), he made Cliff Wasem’s anti-oxidant enzyme formula for arthritis sufferers sound like a gift from above. (And at $350 for a single read, he was effectively earning $21,000 per hour!)
For a number of years, Rush was a spokesman for Snapple beverages, along with shock jock Howard Stern. (Prior to being hired as a spokesman, Rush had, in fact, been giving Snapple free plugs on his show on WABC, simply because he enjoyed the product.) At the time, Snapple had limited distribution, centered around the New York region. But because his show was nationally syndicated, Rush helped to create such a demand for Snapple across America that the company, which had no manufacturing facilities of its own, made arrangements with some 30 bottling plants around the country to increase distribution to meet the pent-up demand.
Finch’s Grocery in Pullman was an advertiser on our station; the owners, who happened to be Rush Limbaugh fans, were amenable to my suggestion that they acquire all the Snapple they could get their hands on when it first became available here, keep it under a tarp, and advertise for a week that Snapple would be released to the public on such-and-such a date. Because of a familial relationship between the grocers and the beer distributor who became the area’s Snapple wholesaler, Finch’s enjoyed an exclusive franchise for the first few weeks. They created the display, we ran the ads, and when the day came, Snapple was flying out of the store by the pallet load. Here’s Jerry Finch, recalling the promotion nearly 30 years later.
Our contract with the syndicator ensured that we would be the only station in the Quad Cities—actually, the only station between the Tri-Cities and Spokane—to carry Rush, and we were hearing from listeners not only in our primary and secondary coverage areas but out in the fringes of our signal, as well.
Curious to learn more, we offered to send any listener that requested it in writing a printed copy of Rush’s 35 Undeniable Truths of Life, to which he often made reference in the early days of his show. We were flooded with requests, and the cards and letters that poured in spoke volumes about Rush’s popularity with listeners. One farmer from the St. John area wrote that he listened in his tractor, timing his fieldwork so that he’d be working on top of the hill when Rush’s program came on.
Rush loved to “illustrate absurdity with absurdity,” by means of the jargon terms he invented (e.g., “Drive-by Media,” “Club Gitmo,” “Governor Coomo,” “Gorbasm,” etc.) and his exuberant news-of-the-moment updates, introduced with his trademark vocal trumpet fanfare: Dadelut dadelut dadelut dadelut dadeluuuut….
Among the dozen or so categories were homeless updates (theme song: “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence Frogman Henry, whom he subsequently invited to perform on stage with him at a Rush to Excellence tour appearance); animal rights updates (theme music: Andy Williams singing “Born Free” mixed with the sounds of animal cries and gunfire); feminist updates (several themes over the years, ranging from Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” to this over-the-top mash-up); and condom updates (theme song: “Up, Up, and Away” by the Fifth Dimension). Here’s an example of the latter from June 15, 1990, featuring a story from Moscow about a University of Idaho vending machine:
Additional satire was regularly cooked up by Rush’s program announcer, Johnny Donovan, and celebrity impersonator and parody songwriter, Paul Shanklin, whose wickedly funny riffs on popular tunes took on a life of their own.
Not everyone liked Rush, of course. Occasionally we’d receive a complaint, sometimes accompanied by a demand that we take him off the air or risk losing a listener; we’d politely remind the individual that they could choose not to listen to Rush simply by switching stations.
His detractors, most of whom evidently never really listened to his program long enough and carefully enough to arrive at an informed opinion, accused Rush of being a racist, among other things. He was not. And who better than James Golden, aka “Bo Snerdley,” his intrepid call screener and longtime producer, to lay that criticism (and so many more) to rest.
Rush was a gift to many. One person I spoke with today said she felt that she’d lost a brother, adding that even though she was several years older than Rush, she considered herself a “Rush baby,” introduced to his show by her father.