Rush Limbaugh on Air
After failing at numerous radio jobs in the 1970s, in which he tried out various styles, including his first broadcast gig at KUDL in Kansas City, the famed talk-radio giant Rush H. Limbaugh III (1951–2021) began his real radio-broadcast career when he hosted a daytime talk show that innovatively mixed conservative politics and humorous entertainment from 1984 to 1988 at the KFBK-AM station in Sacramento, California. According to Forbes’ Dawn Chmielewski,
Limbaugh rose to No. 1 in the market, doubling the size of his audience in just a year. . . . When a radio consultant told his friend Ed McLaughlin about Limbaugh’s popularity there, the ABC Radio Networks President traveled to Sacramento to hear him firsthand. . . . McLaughlin, who credited Limbaugh with rescuing AM radio from oblivion in a 1994 Forbes profile, recruited the local host to New York. He debuted a two-hour talk show on WABC 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’s program in Sacramento that launched his nationally syndicated “The Rush Limbaugh Show” was only possible after the FCC’s 1987 repeal of the suffocating Fairness Doctrine (created in 1949) had opened up AM radio to free speech and new programming competition. For over three decades, Limbaugh’s program was by far the most popular radio show in America, airing on more than 650 stations nationwide across the Premiere Radio Networks with a weekly audience of 25 million, and on May 7, 2020, Limbaugh announced on air that Premiere had calculated an audience that day of 43 million people with an average listening time of two hours and 28 minutes. But throughout his career, he never lost affection for his successful radio roots in the Sacramento area, regularly returning to the area and often on his show humorously singling out comments “For those of you in Rio Linda.”
We had the memorable opportunity to work with Rush Limbaugh on two pivotal occasions.
The first occurred in the mid-1980s, when I was in the process of producing the paperback edition of a book on the growing problem of affordable housing in California, Resolving the Housing Crisis: Government Policy, Decontrol and the Public Interest. Edited by the late, renowned economist M. Bruce Johnson (U.C. Santa Barbara), who would become the founding Research Director at the Independent Institute, the book assembled the most comprehensive-ever critical analysis of government housing and land-use controls restricting the supply of housing and new construction and creating the unaffordable housing tragedy that has only greatly worsened today, including contributing to the massive problem of homelessness.
The acclaimed Clemson U. economist Thomas W. Hazlett (Ph.D., UCLA) at the time was a new assistant professor at the University of California at Davis (U.C. Davis). Tom had contributed the superb Chapter 10 in Resolving the Housing Crisis, “Rent Controls and the Housing Crisis,” and he had further assisted Bruce in completing details for his Introduction to the book.*
Bruce and I were planning to be in Sacramento in spring of 1984 for a one-day conference I had organized on the housing crisis in California with the California Chamber of Commerce and other groups. Bruce was to be a keynote speaker along with the housing and land-use expert Ward A. Connerly, and all attendees would receive a free copy of the book.
Tom had first met Rush Limbaugh at an event at U.C. Davis at which former U.N. Ambassador Jeane D. Kirkpatrick (1926-2006) spoke, and Tom and Rush became good friends. As a result, Tom helped us arrange for Bruce and me to visit with Rush while we were in town for the housing conference to discuss the book’s findings in the KFBK studio.
We had already arranged for Bruce to be interviewed about the book on numerous radio programs, but none of the show hosts understood the housing issue and were quite clueless of government’s culpability in creating the problem. But in visiting with Rush, we found that just as Tom had promised, he had clearly done his homework on the book and understood its findings, interviewing Bruce at considerable detail for an entire hour.
I recall Bruce’s delight, excitement, and amazement with the interview by this guy who neither of us had ever heard of but who, unlike other radio hosts, fully understood what Bruce was saying and the central need for deregulation, free markets and private property rights.
The second time we connected directly with Rush was when we had published the first edition of the Independent Institute’s book, Hot Talk, Cold Science: Global Warming’s Unfinished Debate by our Research Fellow, the late S. Fred Singer, and featuring a foreword by Frederick Seitz, former President of the National Academy of Sciences.
Rush enthusiastically interviewed Fred, who at the time was in Bonn, Germany, having addressed the Austrian Parliament in Vienna a few days earlier, and Rush subsequently published the interview in The Limbaugh Letter (December 1997):
Fasten your seatbelts—you are about to get some real science from one of the foremost experts on global climate change. In fact, Dr. Singer devised the basic instrument for measuring stratospheric ozone. He was somewhat reluctant to discuss the political aspects of the global warming debate—though I tried. Still, as a scientist, he backed me up . . . and confirmed things I’ve been saying for years. . . .
The book became a major seller with extensive media coverage featuring Fred, and was instrumental in redefining and redirecting public climate debate away from unscientific alarmism, leading up to the U.S.’s refusal to ratify the deeply flawed 1992 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Incidentally, we have just released Hot Talk, Cold Science in a Third Revised and Expanded Edition (twice the size of the previous editions in 1997 and 1999), completed by Fred before his death in 2020 and co-authored with the climatologists David R. Legates (U. of Delaware) and Anthony R. Lupo (U. of Missouri), and with a new foreword by the eminent physicist William Happer (Princeton U.)
We will forever be grateful for the very kind and generous assistance of the late Rush Limbaugh.
Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.
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*Other distinguished scholars who were contributing authors to Resolving the Housing Crisis include Peter Colwell (U. of Illinois), Carl Dahlman (U. of Wisconsin), Robert Ellickson (Yale U.), Bernard Frieden (MIT), Norman Karlin (Southwestern U. Law), James Kau (U. of Georgia), Richard Muth (Stanford U.), Roger Pilon (U.S. Office of Personal Management), Judith Robert (U. of Michigan), Bernard Siegan (U. of San Diego), and Robert Weintraub (U.S. Joint Economic Committee), as well as Stephen DeCanio, H. E. Frech III, Alan Gin, Lloyd Mercer, Douglas Morgan, and Jon Sonstelie (all from U.C. Santa Barbara).