Or were his numbers always inflated?
It seems that Rush Limbaugh’s numbers have been plummeting since October of last year. So far, he has lost one-third of his audience, and the trend shows no sign of stopping. In a report from Crains Business, the recent Arbitron ratings show a huge hit for Rush and for Sean Hannity (-28%). While they remain one and two in talk radio, the rapid and immense slide has to be alarming. Of course, neither man will admit any chink in their armor.
Ironically, such lack of professional introspection has probably contributed to their decline. Both shows screen calls severely, and if a dissenter does get through, they are generally crushed by the host’s heavy hand. In fairness to Hannity, he occasionally brings on proponents of opposing viewpoints, but few that aren’t so weak as to set off the straw-man detectors. Of course, they can run their show any way they want, but the absence of strong opposition makes for a fairly boring program. Most of their content sounds something like, blah-blah-blah, commercial, commercial, ad, promo, commercial, blah-blah-blah, unless of course, they are making some outrageous comment that is aimed at stirring up a response. And I have a hunch that any consultant or program director that mentions this flaw is summarily dismissed, so there is little chance that their formats will change in the near future.
Defenders of Limbaugh have already started to rebut the early reports of his demise by arguing that the method of measuring ratings has changed. Apparently, Arbitron has moved from a survey-based system (prone to name-recognition bias) to a system involving more raw data. But if the ratings are simply more accurate, then Limbaugh’s numbers have been inflated all along. No less reason for concern, when advertisers find out.
Perhaps the most intriguing fallout from this news will be how Premiere Networks Radio reacts to the numbers. Premiere has articulated little concern over the decline in market share of their number one and two stars. But if they continue to push Limbaugh and Hannity with limited regard for their marketability, it will lend credence to the argument that critics on the left have long made – that right-wing talkers are owned by right-wing financiers with a greater interest in pushing their agenda than having their on-air products be profitable. That would be the ultimate hypocrisy from a devout promoter of the “let the market handle it” philosophy such as Limbaugh. Of course, one of the major elements of content on Limbaugh’s show, after blah-blah-blah, is hypocrisy.