I love the little Limbaughs. I love the way they fill the silences between potholes on my sundry commutes with an earnest blend of fervor and glee to which ordinarily only rookie Mormons are privy. Every American city of size has them: self-styled radio commentators who aspire to the celebrity and influence, if not the spectacular wealth, of Rush Hudson Limbaugh III.
Pushing their daily topics across the airwaves like so many hamsters with jingle balls, they are unfailingly cute and cuddly. I love our little Limbaughs.
Since radio’s adolescence in the 1920s, almost every generation has had an outsized personality available to inflame political sensibilities on the air. There was Father Coughlin, whose populist rants turned anti-Semitic as World War II drew near (and whose slogan, progressives please note, was “Social Justice”). Later there was Fulton Lewis, Jr., one of Senator Joe McCarthy’s biggest fans. When I started running a radio console in the late Sixties, my favorite pontificator was Melvin Munn, whose smooth baritone intoned right-wing screed on behalf of Texas’s billionaire oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, so hard-core he’d make Sarah Palin come off like a Kennedy.
There was always a place in radio for fringe diatribes, but only in recent years has the fringe made its way into the cultural mainstream, predominantly in the sizable wake of the aforementioned Mr. Limbaugh. His shtick imposed a Top 40 sensibility on what came to be known as “talk radio” after the Reagan-era repeal of the FCC’s venerable “Fairness Doctrine”, which required stations licensed to operate in the public interest to provide air time for opponents of controversial opinions broadcast on the public’s airwaves.
Without the need to be fair anymore, stations could broadcast all the opinions they liked, and since they tended to be owned by conservative capitalists, the stations liked their opinions most often. Limbaugh delivered the goods in national syndication, attaching more than 600 stations to his “Excellence In Broadcasting Network” and claiming an audience of 20 million listeners, although his own syndication group has stated that any quarter-hour of his weekday show averages around 3.6 million and, anyway, Arbitron, the big measuring stick, has never released an estimate of the Limbaugh national audience.
The problem for talk radio stations is filling all the other hours Rush is not on, and despite all the new cocks anxious to displace the ruler of the roost, no other nationally syndicated broadcaster, neither Hannity nor Savage nor Ingraham, quite riles the barnyard.
This is where the little Limbaughs come in.
Playing to a strictly local audience unlikely to get through to a national show, they are better able to elicit responses from callers on matters of neighborhood interest and, in turn, to gin up neighborhood problems into citywide concerns.
For instance, one day last week I heard a little Limbaugh stirring a teapot valiantly to make a tempest out of the Hoover school board president’s decision to replace each meeting’s introductory prayer with a moment of silence.
An organization with the suspicious title Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had requested the change and the school board’s attorney agreed it might be a good idea, but to hear the little Limbaugh and his coterie tell it, you’d think the school board had built a compost heap on the Ark of the Covenant, raised a flag, set it afire and smothered the flames with the Declaration of Independence.
What I gleaned from the discussion was that host and callers were tolerant of all religions, unless one had no religion, in which case they couldn’t tolerate that. They’d no use for atheists, though, as supposedly strict constructionists, they must have realized that freethinkers had the most to gain from the First Amendment’s protection against “an establishment of religion.”
This little Limbaugh inveighed mightily about the Founders’ intent, but were James Madison himself on the Hoover school board, he surely would have voted for a truncation of the invocation. “I have no doubt,” the Constitution’s primary author wrote in 1822, “that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
Another little Limbaugh I heard weighing in on the curious case of the so-called “New Black Panthers”, a fringe group with no more relevance to black attitudes toward race than has David Duke to white attitudes toward race. The tizzy that week was the ultimately fraudulent contention by a former Justice department attorney that Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, had intervened, at the President’s behest, to keep a New Panther from being prosecuted in a white voter intimidation incident in Philadelphia.
What caught my ear was the little Limbaugh averring that, although clearly a hate group, the New Black Panthers were not on the watch list of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which he characterized as an organization that profits from race-baiting.
I had no reason to think the well-informed commentator could be mistaken, but it was an easy matter to access the SPLC website, and, sure enough, among the 932 groups on its “Hate Map”, there were the New Panthers, a “black separatist” outfit. It led me to conclude that the commentator might be misinformed about the rest of his proposition, and that the SPLC might in fact be on the front lines of monitoring extremists in every stratum of American life. Then again, no talk radio hosts were on the list.
That’s a jest, of course. Talk radio is no more a threat to the republic than professional wrestling and every bit as authentic. We don’t expect Rush to play fair any more than we’d expect it from Randy Orton, but the little Limbaughs are different. They live here. They’re our neighbors. We can hold them accountable for their statements daily, and we should.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.