Rush Limbaugh’s death after more than three decades as the brash and provocative host of his nationally syndicated talk show marks the silencing of a broadcasting pioneer who was a leading voice of the modern conservative movement, Forbes reports.
Limbaugh was there at the start of a fresh boom in syndicated radio with a bombastic style that enraged progressives and captivated conservatives, helping bring about the rise of right-wing radio. More than any other figure, he revived AM Radio at a time when FM had captured the ears of music listeners, and gave Americans who felt marginalized a reason to tune in.
His pioneering approach brought immense success. Limbaugh was first ranked among the world’s highest-paid entertainers in 1994 at No. 36 with pretax earnings of $25 million. He’s been a fixture on the rankings since then and last year ranked No. 11 with pretax earnings of $85 million. In all, Limbaugh has talked his way to pre-tax earnings of $1.1 billion, according to Forbes estimates, which also do not factor in personal spending and professional costs, which would consume a substantial portion of that income.
The Rush Limbaugh Show could be heard on more than 650 radio stations across the Premier Radio Networks, a subsidiary of iHeartMedia, regularly attracting 15 million listeners. He was a prolific writer, penning a number of history books for young readers, and two New York Times best sellers, The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So.
Limbaugh was drawn to radio at an early age. He landed a part-time job at the local station near his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he worked as a helper before eventually graduating to disc jockey. "I was totally consumed," he said in one 1990 interview, noting he’d drop by the station before and after school.
Disdainful of school—he once referred to it as “prison”—Limbaugh dropped out of college after a year and tried to break into radio, landing and losing jobs as he tried out different broadcast styles. At one point he pronounced he’d give up the mike forever, and took a job with the Kansas City Royals baseball team. He quit that job after five years and returned to the broadcasting booth.
Former ABC Radio Networks Presdient Ed McLaughlin, who credited Limbaugh with rescuing AM radio from oblivion in a 1994 Forbes profile, recruited the host from Sacramento to New York, He debuted a two-hour talk show on 77WABC in August 1988 that they soon began syndicating across the country. At the time, AM radio was facing an existential crisis. Listeners had gravitated to FM for music, leaving AM radio in search of a winning programming format. Talk filled the silence.
Limbaugh caught fire with an audience that felt alienated and unheard lampooning liberals in a way that thrilled his audience. He “aborted” progressive callers by drowning them out to the sound of a vacuum cleaner. He preceded segments about the openly gay Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts with the song “My Boy Lollipop.” To ridicule animal rights activists he introduced wildlife segments with Andy Williams’ “Born Free,” overdubbed with mortar blasts, shotguns firing and animals squawking.
Limbaugh’s success would birth imitators across the radio dial, but his more lasting legacy is in politics. He was a star among Republicans before Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes created the Fox News Channel, and well before later right-leaning news sites such as Red State, Breitbart and Townhall. One historian who chronicled the rise of The Radio Right, Paul Matzko, says Limbaugh was influential in turning so-called Reagan Democrats—the truck drivers, carpenters and other working-class voters who would listen to the radio every day from the shop bench—into Republicans.