The business model for a public air waves radio station is matching advertising dollars with listeners. Advertising pays all the bills. It becomes obvious, then, that advertisers are the real power behind any publicly broadcast program. Advertising funds program content, and all else.
In 2006 Spocko, a San Francisco blogger, was carrying out a simple, yet elegant plan for holding shock jocks accountable: if advertisers on radio programs on the public airwaves aren't hearing the offending talk show audio in the news sufficiently that they'll spontaneously become embarrassed by the association of their brand with the offensive content, then listeners might provide them with the content special delivery. Almost single-handedly, Spocko created havoc for certain miscreants in the radio industry. Since then, the web and social media have enabled another layer of potential discipline against flagrant bigotry, misogyny, or political lunacy on the public airwaves. In the era of Komen/Planned Parenthood, Rush/Fluke, and shock jock Dominic Dieter's "rape away the gay" advocacy, Spocko's formula has become supercharged.
Spocko's plan was an alternative to another social responsibility mechanism which had been effective, but more recently seems unavailable: regulation. We'll explore that circumstance, as well as shock jocks, Spocko's method, Rush, and StopRush, all after the hop.
Era of Regulation
There are essentially three related issues wrapped up in the question of public airwaves regulation: decency, fairness related to controversy, and domination of radio networks by conglomerates. A tug of war between liberals and conservatives over each of these issues has buffeted enforcement by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for decades.
Both conservatives and liberals have been accused of selectively enforcing decency according to political philosophy. Generally speaking, conservatives have consistently favored the right to controversy over the fairness and balance preferred by liberals. And, conservatives have been somewhat divided on the conglomerate vs. local control issue, with conglomerates usually, but not always, winning. As in so many industries, conglomerates tend to dominate lobbying efforts, and in the radio/television industry, the heavyweight lobbyist is the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
During the administration of President Clinton, and early in the George W. Bush adminstration, FCC enforcement of decency had some teeth. Infinity Broadcasting paid a $1.7 million fine to the FCC over Howard Stern-related indecency charges in 1995. Clear Channel Communications settled with the FCC for two million dollars over Stern in 2004. That same year Clear Channel also faced the threat of a $755,000 fine over Bubba the Love Sponge. In all three instances, the radio networks terminated the offending programs. However, according to Radio-info.com, "it’s been many years since the FCC fined a radio station for alleged indecency."
FCC regulation of decency on public airwaves (particularly when children may be listening) got a boost in the 1978 Supreme Court decision in Pacifica Foundation v. Federal Communications Commission -- a case brought about by a complaint over the airing of George Carlin's "seven dirty words". In both Rush Limbaugh's Fluke controversy, and in the more recent dust up over shock jock Dominic Dieter suggesting that men should rape away a female teen's girl-kissing tendencies, some have advocated an FCC solution to crass and vulgar pronouncements by on-air personalities. However, a 2010 court ruling "that the vagueness of the FCC's guidelines and the inconsistency in its decisions chilled the First Amendment rights of broadcasters in violation of the First Amendment" has muddled the issue, making subsequent enforcement at least questionable. The arguments about first amendment issues vs. the government regulating indecency continue to rage.
President Bush presided over an era of dramatic expansion for radio network conglomerates:
Concentrating Media OwnershipThe loosening of rules limiting radio conglomerates followed a party line vote. In 2005, Bush chose a new chairman for the FCC:
The FCC in 2003 approved controversial new rules allowing large media companies to expand their ownership of television and radio stations. The Republican-led commission, with Michael Powell at the helm, voted 3-2 to allow broadcast networks to own television stations that reach a combined 45% of the national audience, up from 35%...
Democrats on the FCC board and Capitol Hill objected to the changes, as did consumer groups and some traditionally-conservative voices.
President Bush on Wednesday announced the appointment of Kevin Martin as the new head for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission...The "filth in broadcasting" that caused such consternation for Concerned Women for America, however, appears to have been Janet Jackson's televised "wardrobe malfunction" the previous year. Although the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005 became law in 2006 largely as a response to the Superbowl Halftime Show, it's primary purpose is increasing the amount of fines. If no fines are assessed, of course, the dollar amount means little.
Concerned Women for America (CWA), a Christian advocacy group, hailed Bush’s appointment, calling Martin "the right pick".
"Commissioner Martin is the man we backed because he has a consistent and strong track record of decency enforcement," said Jan LaRue, CWA's chief counsel.
"He has been a champion of cleaning up the filth in broadcasting, and being chairman will only further posture him to do just that," LaRue added. "We have repeatedly urged our 500,000 constituents to flood the White House with calls urging the President to choose Kevin Martin for this essential role."
Meanwhile, some conservative organizations and websites such as KeepRushOnTheAir.com (now defunct) supported conglomerates in opposition to local control, and opposed efforts to restore the Fairness Doctrine, which had been abolished by President Ronald Reagan's FCC. The Fairness Doctrine had been:
...a policy of the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced in 1949, that required the holders of broadcast licenses to both present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission's view, honest, equitable and balanced.President Obama was seen by conservatives as a probable champion of fairness and local control, and thus, a threat to conservative talk radio:
President-Elect Attacks First AmendmentThe alternative to government regulation of public airwaves, of course, is organization and engagement by the larger society. Communication with advertisers becomes the free speech mechanism by which content providers may also be pressured.
Democrats want to bring back the Fairness Doctrine to stifle conservative talk radio’s criticism
Jack Thompson, Human Events, December 2008
In 1987, President Reagan’s FCC jettisoned the Fairness Doctrine, and conservative talk radio grew like topsy, unencumbered by the logistical nightmare of determining what is "controversial" and what is "fair." Rush Limbaugh’s meteoric, syndicated rise is directly attributable to this repeal...
Glenn Beck has warned that if the Fairness Doctrine comes back, he’ll be off the air...
Jim Boulet, Jr., the head of English First in Washington, D.C., one of whose projects is www.keeprushontheair.com has been studying and warning for months about the morphing of FCC localism...
Obama sent a public letter to Chairman Martin stating, "The Commission has failed to further the goals of diversity in the media and promote localism..." The head of Obama’s transition team is John Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress. In 2007, the Center issued a report, The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio, which concluded there were too many conservatives on the radio because of "the absence of localism in American radio markets" and urged the FCC to "[e]nsure greater local accountability over radio licensing..."
A relatively small number of sponsors of the Don Imus morning show withdrew their advertising in 2007 after a racially tinged slight of the Rutgers Women's basketball team. Yet the Imus soundbite "nappy headed hos" was repeated incessantly on cable news programs, creating a firestorm of protest. Eventually, Imus was fired.
In 2009, Glenn Beck was host of one of the highest rated news commentary programs on cable TV. By the time the Fox News host called President Obama a racist, the formula had been refined. Media Matters for America and Color Of Change joined forces to record Beck show content, and to contact sponsors. Over a period of twenty months, a "trickle of advertisers" boycotting his show eventually "turned into a torrent". Fox News had long seemed an unassailable bastion of ideological conservatism, the perfect playground for Beck's peculiar bounce off the blackboard brand. Yet Beck was also fired.
The shock jock phenomena is not really anything new. There have been "notoriously offensive performers" throughout history, and the era of radio shock jocks has existed at least since the 1970s. Wikipedia asserts,
Many shock jocks have been fired as a result of such punishments as regulatory fines, loss of advertisers, or simply social and political outrage. On the other hand, it is also not uncommon for such broadcasters to be quickly re-hired by another station or network.Thus, with the FCC perhaps inhibited by an unfavorable judicial environment, there is little to discourage the most boorish behavior by on air personalities.
Many offenses by a significant number of radio talkers involve sound bites that are no less outrageous than now ubiquitous comments by Limbaugh, Beck, or Imus. Occasionally, some of these personalities are fired. More often, either due to the host's lower profile, or perhaps due to market segmentation, the offensive audio never hits the mainstream. In the case of Rush Limbaugh, notoriety and highly visible political connections insured that his Sandra Fluke attacks were widely reported. He casually dismissed what might have taken down a lesser personality as "a few missing french fries". He claimed 18,000 advertisers on his 600 radio stations, suggesting that the damage was limited. And, he claimed there was no one who could fire him. Yet Rush does have a contract, and that contract is viable only so long as he continues to perform -- in industry parlance, matching ears with advertisers. And, his contract is expensive -- not a comfortable circumstance if events take a turn for the worse.
Rush Limbaugh's millions are derived from advertising dollars, partly contracted directly with the so-called EIB Network -- the mildly pompous "Excellence In Broacasting" moniker that Rush has given to his show -- and partly derived from syndication. His show is distributed via Premiere Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel. Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman, who has invested $400 million in the talk show host, waited just under a month for the Fluke crisis to calm before offering his public approval of Rush.
One might have expected Limbaugh, the putative "king of talk radio" and "godfather of the GOP", to take note when advertisers fled Beck's show. But some have argued that Rush essentially creates his own reality, and passes this on to his listeners. He called Sandra Fluke a slut and prostitute for three days straight, and even demanded sex videos. He repeatedly knocked down straw arguments that Fluke never made. Of course, this isn't the only time that Limbaugh has been caught in a flagrant lie. Limbaugh's lies are rarely challenged effectively, in part because no one else has a talk show broadcast on 600 stations. That he attacked Fluke unfairly Wednesday through Friday, and failed to recognize a threat to advertising revenues until Saturday, attests to the impermeability of his reality bubble. In less than two weeks 140 major advertisers had vowed not to advertise on Rush.
Limbaugh hired a crisis manager, and joined the Twitterverse. But even after giving away an Ipad a day for retweets, his just over 200,000 followers (who have been invited to join two Twitter accounts, which he adds together to assert double the number of followers) are a mere fraction of the twenty million listeners that he claims. (In comparison, Stephen Colbert has 3.3 million Twitter followers.)
Limbaugh's crisis team removed transcripts of his tirade against Fluke from his otherwise comprehensive archives. They also employed legal maneuvers, pressuring YouTube to take down a video entitled, "53 of Rush Limbaugh's most vile smears against Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke". The video is once again available, perhaps vindicating the Fair Use Doctrine for activist use, even as it underscores the futility of removing anything of significance from the Internet.
When advertisers continued to fall away, many after hearing from customer/activists, supporter Jeffrey Lord, writing in the American Spectator, tried to launch a "Rally for Rush" counter-movement. It fizzled, in spite of his dangling transgender issues, together with bullet in the brain imagery, nazis, communists, and a conjured leftist ku klux klan in front of his readers. Scattered ditto-heads lurk on Facebook pages of advertisers who have left the show, and on the pages of advertisers they fear may leave, but the save Limbaugh movement is fractured and of little consequence, save for the occasional abuse or threat. The cacophony of right wing blather on Twitter remains high, but isn't really focused on Rush and his difficulties.
Meanwhile, claiming that "McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Intuit, Kraft, Arby’s, and Walgreens have shown their true colors: appeasement yellow" [emphasis added], columnist Michelle Malkin, seeking redemption for both Limbaugh and ALEC, envisions right wing retribution against erstwhile allies. She has called for nothing less than a counter-boycott of corporations by conservatives. Many businesses are already averse to sponsoring programs "deemed to be offensive or controversial", and one wonders whether such high profile smearing of corporations is likely to engender much sympathy in corporate boardrooms. Some progressives believe the more conservatives respond with vitriol, the less likely businesses are to ever again risk their brand in sponsorship of controversial programming. Because conservatives dominate talk radio, conservatives presumably have more to lose from any backlash to the backlash. How surreal that the Fairness Doctrine may have been eviscerated by conservatives in favor of a right to controversy, yet that very controversy, given free rein, seems to have loosed enough bridle for conservatives to hang themselves. How ironic that market forces are now correcting a gross imbalance in the direction of the "honest, equitable and balanced" playing field envisioned by the very doctrine that conservatives decried. Of course, none of this is assured without participation of an aroused citizenry.
By his own account, Spocko worked quietly, deliberately, and pretty much in isolation. He established contact with the advertising departments of corporations, linking audio of offensive commentary in his messages. He researched their corporate statement of values, and asked them to consider offensive content in light of those values. When a controversial radio personality voiced a company's ads, Spocko observed that this person was also the voice of the company. Spocko emphasized that withdrawing advertising support for a show didn't limit a host's free speech, it was simply ceasing to support offensive content with advertising dollars. He would summarize, "You can choose to advertise elsewhere. This is really about YOU. Do YOU want to be associated with these comments? Do you want your company and brand to be associated with these comments?"
How might Spocko counter the argument made by Rush Limbaugh supporters that listeners should tolerate the free speech of shock jocks or talk show hosts, and simply change the channel if they don't like the content? He has cited the example of three Rwandan radio personalities who were convicted of genocide for inciting the murder of about 800,000 Rwandan citizens. Free speech is fine, but hate speech can have very serious consequences.
The method that Spocko pioneered is now embraced by activist organizations far and wide. It played a significant role in removing Glenn Beck from Fox, and variations came into play in the Komen flap. With greater numbers of individuals involved, activists ask the same or similar questions of businesses via email, Twitter, Facebook, fax, or phone.
Color of Change asserts that more than 285,000 people asked hundreds of advertisers to distance themselves from Glenn Beck's program. Komen experienced comment counts on Facebook numbering ten thousand in a single thread, and the damage to Komen persists, with "[a]ffiliates from Indiana to Arizona [reporting] declines in race participants and funds". Even as the daily attacks on Sandra Fluke continued, hundreds of people launched anti-Rush petitions on sites such as Change.org. Credo Action counted more than 450,000 messages to Rush's sponsors.
Consumer activists availed themselves of numerous online resources to gain corporate attention in the early days of the Limbaugh-Fluke flap: Corporate Headquarters, Contact Help, Pissed Consumer, and Customer Service Scoreboard are just a few of these. Any site that allowed comments about products -- Amazon.com, for example -- saw commentary about Rush and Fluke. Yelp (a free competitor to Angie's List -- one of two major companies to return to Rush) was pressed into service, with negative reviews of ProFlowers simultaneous with that company's two days of holding out as a Limbaugh sponsor. Perhaps because of the incongruity of its product and customer base with the misogynist anti-Fluke rant by Rush, ProFlowers was inundated via Facebook and Twitter. UltraViolet, a women's rights group, spurred "100,000 signatures online in two days for a petition asking ProFlowers to boycott the show," with the first ten thousand signatures gathered in just an hour. Another 30,000 messages to the company followed. ProFlowers caved on the Sunday following the Fluke tirade, citing the flood of comments for its decision.
And what of the impact of the Rush backlash on the radio industry? We already had seen indications that the Rush backlash was being felt by both talk and music format stations. Some in the radio industry are nervous that Rush has no reservations about blasting former advertisers on the air. The following is from Radio-info.com, an industry message board:
May 3, 2012Of course this is nothing new. While business entities generally keep their transactions private, a spiteful Rush Limbaugh gleefully trashed Sleep Train on the air after it briefly suspended ads. Rush was coy -- not mentioning the name of the company on the air, but making its identity clear to longtime listeners. Sleep Train Chief Executive Dale Carlsen had been a friend, and the company advertised with Limbaugh for 25 years. The Los Angeles Times gave us the inside story:
I heard Rush mention by name two sponsors that dropped him are using his name on the Internet in conjunction with their products ... he seems to be indirectly trashing sponsors who support other programs and stations.
So in the 12 to 3 PM est block Rush says these people dropped him, and in the 9 to 12 est block, some other host or station is saying buy from these sponsors. Is this a good idea? I suppose he wants people to give his tea for Mother's Day and not a competing product. Seems to be hurting other radio people and the stations that are caught in the middle.
Just bringing up the names of the 2 sponsors that dropped him during the Mother's Day season seems to be getting a little nasty, of course they dropped him...however any new RUSH sponsors might think if they advertise with him, then drop him, they might be targeted with negative commentary?
Why not let sleeping dogs alone and move on? Rush seems to have gotten new sponsor, conservative websites and think tanks, so why hurt your affiliates??
March 8, 2012If hard information on the industry-wide impact of the Rush backlash is difficult to establish, anecdotal information about Rush does trickle out from time to time. For example,
The intense campaign to cut advertising to "The Rush Limbaugh Show" took another turn Thursday when one of the first companies to pull its ads reportedly asked to return to the radio show -- only to be told by Team Limbaugh that the conservative host no longer would give his endorsement...
Limbaugh spokesman Brian Glicklich on Thursday forwarded a copy of an email that he said had been sent to Sleep Train Chief Executive Dale Carlsen. In it, Glicklich wrote that Limbaugh had personally received the company's requests to resume advertising on his show.
"Unfortunately," Glicklich wrote, "your public comments were not well received by our audience, and did not accurately portray either Rush Limbaugh's character or the intent of his remarks. Thus, we regret to inform you that Rush will be unable to endorse Sleep Train in the future..."
April 28, 2012Limbaugh's listenership is eroding (in spite of his grandiose claims otherwise) and he is "not a lock" for keeping his network together. Sounds like a sign of things to come.
I was at a radio summit yesterday when the Rush topic came up briefly. One group VP mentioned that, like Howard Stern, controversial programming is fine, so long as the ratings are there. He also went on to explain that, unlike many shows that are offered on a barter basis, Rush's show costs money AND inventory. It is expensive. Again, fine, just so long as the ratings are there and the revenue follows. He indicated however that Rush's listenership has been eroding and wasn't anywhere near where it's been. His contract with this particular group is coming up in the next year or so and this VP indicated that renewal was not a lock.
So, in spite of all this history, the Limbaugh/Fluke controversy is dying down, right?
The worst is over, Rush and his crisis management team can heave a sigh of relief, right?
Not on your life. The fight against Limbaugh is just beginning. The right wing senses the danger, and has been responding with every bogus argument that it can muster. The newly energized StopRush movement is responding, on Daily Kos and elsewhere, suggesting the patriotic slogan, we have not yet begun to fight.
Meanwhile, perhaps reminscent of the battle scene arrival of Old Ironsides, the StopRush Project's long-awaited database has come online, marking emergence of the most sophisticated infrastructure to date for holding talk show hosts and shock jocks accountable.
StopRush is "a collaborative crowd-sourced volunteer effort to gather information on sponsors and other data related to, and useful for the StopRush Campaign. We took the name from the #StopRush hash tag when it first appeared on Twitter. The site is just one of many efforts in a leaderless, national, multi-party grass roots campaign to change Rush Limbaugh's daily reliance on hate, lies, and vitriol to sell conservative political messages masquerading as 'entertainment'..."Rush will have something new to tweet to ditto-land.
Tue May 08, 2012 at 11:27 PM PT: Two important developments, days after this diary was published:
Rush Limbaugh’s 'slutgate' controversy caused parent company to lose 'millions of dollars' in advertising
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/...
Rush Limbaugh Launches "Rush Babes For America"