Limbaugh Begins Talk Radio in Sacramento

When Rush Limbaugh began hosting an issues-oriented radio talk show in 1984, radio was dominated by music stations, with talk shows considered to be mostly local advice forums for marginal audiences and unrepresentative of important cultural trends. Ten years later, Limbaugh’s show had become a nationally syndicated phenomenon, inspiring hundreds of imitators and transforming talk radio into one of the most commercially lucrative and politically influential forms of mass media.

Key Figures

Rush Limbaugh

(b. 1951), conservative radio talk-show host

Morton Downey, Jr.

(1933-2001), radio and television talk-radio pioneer

Sean Hannity

(b. 1961), author and radio and television talk-show host Hannity, Sean

Mark Levin

(b. 1957), lawyer and president of the Landmark Legal Foundation

G. Gordon Liddy

(b. 1930), former FBI agent and aide to President Richard M. Nixon, author, and talk-show host

Oliver North

(b. 1943), lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines, central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, and radio and television talk-show host

Walter Williams

(b. 1936), author, columnist, and professor of economics

Summary of Event

With the landslide reelection of President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the contentiousness of political discourse escalated in the United States. News outlets that had long been considered objective began taking what some perceived to be an unusually adversarial stance, betraying a liberal bias in the process and inadvertently sowing the seeds of a grassroots conservative response. While William F. Buckley, Jr.’s conservative National Review magazine and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program Firing Line had existed for decades, their erudite tone had limited their appeal to a minority of intellectual elites. No forum existed for the average, blue-collar conservative. Into this void “rushed” Rush Limbaugh, a veteran rock-and-roll disc jockey who felt limited by radio station managers’ prohibitions on the on-air expression of private opinion. Williams, Walter
North, Oliver
Liddy, G. Gordon
Levin, Mark
Downey, Morton, Jr.
Limbaugh, Rush
Talk radio
Radio;talk programs
[kw]Limbaugh Begins Talk Radio in Sacramento (1984)
[kw]Talk Radio in Sacramento, Limbaugh Begins (1984)
[kw]Radio in Sacramento, Limbaugh Begins Talk (1984)
[kw]Sacramento, Limbaugh Begins Talk Radio in (1984)
Talk radio
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[g]North America;1984: Limbaugh Begins Talk Radio in Sacramento[05350]
[g]United States;1984: Limbaugh Begins Talk Radio in Sacramento[05350]
[c]Radio and television;1984: Limbaugh Begins Talk Radio in Sacramento[05350]

In 1984, after several years as an employee of the Kansas City Royals baseball team, Limbaugh returned to the airwaves as a talk-show host at KFBK, an AM station in Sacramento, California, where he replaced Morton Downey, Jr., when Downey moved to New York to make the transition to television. The popularity of Downey’s brash, theater-of-the-mind conservatism paved the way for Limbaugh’s similarly freewheeling style. Gradually, however, a key difference emerged. Whereas Downey was notoriously outrageous and therefore generally assumed to be more interested in ratings than in effecting political change, Limbaugh made it clear, even when he was “illustrating absurdity by being absurd,” that he meant what he said.

Despite his success, Limbaugh might have remained a local star had the Federal Communications Commission Federal Communications Commission;Fairness Doctrine (FCC) not repealed the Fairness Doctrine Fairness Doctrine in 1987. That doctrine, which in essence required radio stations to guarantee equal time to the airing of liberal and conservative ideas, had come to be seen as an inhibitor of the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Once the Fairness Doctrine was repealed, stations could present a show such as Limbaugh’s without worrying about how it affected their liberal-conservative balance, concentrating only on its popularity and therefore its ability to attract advertisers.

One year after the Fairness Doctrine’s repeal, Limbaugh was hired by WABC in New York. His national syndication, however, was not a foregone conclusion. Daytime radio programs consisting mainly of a host’s spontaneous monologues and caller interaction flew in the face of the then-prevalent notion that only evening shows with a steady flow of high-profile guests stood a chance of amassing a following. In his willingness and ability to prove such conventional wisdom wrong (he “went national” on August 1, 1988), Limbaugh not only demonstrated the existence of a daytime audience hungry for enthusiastic political discussion but also whetted that audience’s appetite for more.

The contents of Limbaugh’s political menu were not in themselves new. His advocacy of limited government and low taxation and his opposition to judicial and environmental activism had been ingredients of traditional conservatism since the founding of the United States. What was new was Limbaugh’s ability to present conservative ideas with a provocateur’s unflappability and a prankster’s sense of humor.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich gestures as conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh speaks on a phone during a taping break on NBC’s Meet the Press in November, 1995. Limbaugh helped transform talk radio into one of the most politically influential forms of mass media.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Because of his often playful flamboyance, Limbaugh was seldom given credit for the gravity that he brought to America’s emotionally charged political debates. (He regularly featured, for instance, the topical song parodies of Paul Shanklin.) However, by surrounding himself with a formidable cast of authorities (Walter Williams on economics, Mark Levin on legal issues) and occasionally airing live interviews with influential politicians, Limbaugh maintained an undercurrent of credibility and seriousness. It was, in fact, his ability to mix seriousness and comedy that set him apart from a pack consisting mainly of hosts who specialized in either seriousness or comedy but seldom both.

Limbaugh also motivated listeners to vote in key national elections. When the Republican Party Republican Party (U.S.)
U.S. Congress;Republican resurgence won both the Senate and the House of Representatives in 1994, he received nearly as much credit as Republican congressman and House Speaker Newt Gingrich Gingrich, Newt (whose legislative agenda, the Contract with America, was the linchpin of the Republican campaign). Limbaugh stopped short of giving out the phone numbers of elected officials, although he was often accused of doing so.

As station after station picked up Limbaugh’s show, there arose a need for more hosts to fill the time slots surrounding his. So it was that the flames of social and political controversy that Limbaugh stoked for three hours each day came to be tended into the evening and the next day by a varied array of hosts. Among the first to benefit were G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North, high-profile conservatives whose association with national scandals (Liddy with Watergate, North with the Iran-Contra affair) helped prepare them for their new roles as on-air culture warriors. Liberal-leaning hosts, from the overtly political (Alan Colmes, Ed Schultz) to the deliberately shocking (Don and Mike, Opie and Anthony), and apolitical niche broadcasters (psychologists, financial advisers, computer experts, sports announcers, and paranormal aficionados) benefited as well, if only because, Fairness Doctrine or no Fairness Doctrine, many stations still felt obligated to vary their output.

The most direct connection between Limbaugh and the success of others was seen in the careers of those who filled in for him as guest hosts. In this role, economics professor Walter Williams and film critic Michael Medved reached new audiences and enlarged the readership of their books and syndicated columns. No Limbaugh guest host, however, made more of his opportunity than Sean Hannity, who quickly went on to become a best-selling author and the possessor of a weekly listenership estimated to number more than twelve million. Limbaugh also demonstrated the willingness of the radio audience to subscribe to talk-show-based newsletters and Web sites, enterprises to which he turned after the failure of his short-lived television show and to which other hosts soon turned once he had proved them lucrative.


In demonstrating the potential of talk radio both to turn large profits and to effect political change, Limbaugh revitalized and revolutionized the entire genre. The mass switching of music stations to the twenty-four-hour talk format required an increasing variety of programs, thus providing an opportunity for hundreds of previously little-known hosts to demonstrate their talent to larger and larger audiences. Whereas the number of nationally known talk-show hosts in 1984 could have been counted on one hand (Larry King, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the Talknet regulars Bruce Williams and Sally Jesse Raphael), the counting of such hosts by 1999 would have required many hands indeed.

The majority of the new talk-show hosts, like Limbaugh, were politically conservative. In 2004, however, Air America Radio, a network devoted exclusively to overtly liberal (or “progressive”) programming, was launched in response. The satellite-based stations XM Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio may have never been launched without their inclusion of talk shows in general and the “shock jock” giant Howard Stern Stern, Howard in particular.

Other media benefited from the popularity of talk radio as well. Like Limbaugh and Stern, radio luminaries such as Don Imus, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Jim Rome, Larry Elder, and Glenn Beck parlayed their radio popularity into television careers that, while sometimes brief, would never have materialized prior to 1990. Fox Television’s Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity played the game in reverse by first establishing themselves on television, but their radio popularity enabled them to reach a nonviewing audience, some of whose members then, in turn, also became television viewers.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the talk-radio phenomenon was the publishing industry. In the wake of Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be
Way Things Ought to Be, The (Limbaugh) (1992) and See, I Told You So
See, I Told You So (Limbaugh) (1993), it became common for the books of talk-show celebrities such as Stern, Schlessinger, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Art Bell, and George Noory and the books of their guests to dominate the best-seller lists. Talk radio
Radio;talk programs

Further Reading

  • Barker, David C. Rushed to Judgment: Talk Radio, Persuasion, and American Political Behavior. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. A critical, “value heresthetic” examination of the role that a talk-show host’s (particularly Limbaugh’s) framing of a question plays in his or her persuasive effectiveness.
  • Franken, Al. Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: And Other Observations. New York: Dell, 1999. A satirical response to Limbaugh and the conservative ideas ushered into mainstream American political discourse by his first decade of popularity.
  • Limbaugh, Rush. See, I Told You So. New York: Pocket Books, 1993. A collection of lively, conservative prose chiseled from Limbaugh’s radio observations and focusing on the implications of Bill Clinton’s first term as president.
  • _______. The Way Things Ought to Be. New York: Pocket Books, 1992. The first of Limbaugh’s two collections of political essays, written primarily in response to the most politically controversial events of the early 1990’s.

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