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Rush Limbaugh Gives Liberals the Business, Gets Plenty Himself : Radio: The conservative talk-show host, whose program is nationally syndicated, is a major commercial enterprise.

November 25, 1989|CLAUDIA PUIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One moment he claims to be "on the cutting edge of societal evolution," and the next he assures his radio listeners that he is "your epitome of morality and virtue. A man you could totally trust with your wife, your daughter and even your son in a Motel 6 overnight."

Never self-effacing, he repeatedly boasts that he is "recognized as one of the greatest talk-show hosts in America. . . . When I say something on a topic, there's nothing left to say."

What nationally syndicated radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh doesn't say is that he is also a major commercial enterprise.

"He's selling the product 'Rush Limbaugh' and doing it in a lot of different promotional ways," said Howard Neal, general manager of KFI-AM (640), which carries Limbaugh's program weekday mornings. Limbaugh, whose program showcases his passionately conservative viewpoint on world events and features calls from equally passionate listeners, is currently heard on more than 172 stations nationwide. He has a listenership of about 900,000 during any given quarter-hour period, according to Arbitron ratings calculations.

Last week, about 550 people (300 of them from California) paid $1,500 each to accompany and be entertained by Limbaugh on a weeklong cruise through the Caribbean. The radio personality and his corporation got a percentage of each ticket sold. On the cruise, Limbaugh presided at two round-table discussions and one auditorium performance. (Among the other festivities on board: Limbaugh assembled a group to shout insults at Cuban leader Fidel Castro as the ship sailed close to that island nation.)

In addition to his radio program, which originates from New York, Limbaugh hits the stage regularly on his nationwide "Rush to Excellence" tour. He says he makes about $250,000 per year in his speaking engagements, which he holds almost every weekend.

A recent performance brought the 38-year-old Limbaugh to Irvine (home of one of the "biggest collections of rich Republicans in the country," he says), where more than 3,600 people paid as much as $25 apiece to hear Limbaugh expound on such topics as abortion ("the modern-day Holocaust"), gun control ("the liberals would have you believe that the gun actually triggers itself"), liberal politicians in general and, in particular that night, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

As the 6-foot, 300-pound Limbaugh stepped on stage at UC Irvine's Bren Center, the audience rose to its feet, some standing on chairs, whistling, hooting, cheering, chanting his name and generally going wild.

"You're sexy," yelled one woman.

"Forever my hero," yelled another.

"A lot of people think it's going to be a lecture," Limbaugh said in an interview after the show. "They think, 'Here comes this right-wing reactionary extremist fanatic who's going to denounce all things that are not conservative.' But it turns out to look to the casual observer like a rock concert."

Many Limbaugh fans--or "dittoheads," as he calls them--are willing to dish out fistfuls of cash for Limbaugh T-shirts, satin jackets, "dittohead" mugs and "Rush to Excellence" videocassettes. Nearly all of the merchandise--$10,000 worth of it--was sold at the Irvine show. Limbaugh says he gets a percentage of the profits from those sales, but won't say how much.

Limbaugh's shows are a lot like his radio programs--full of vitriol against liberals.

"Let's talk a little bit about Barney Frank. . . . He claimed he didn't know a prostitution ring was being run out of his house. Do you dare challenge the honesty and integrity of Barney Frank? Damn right I do!

"Barney said he's been careless in his associations. Do we have blatant hypocrisy going on here? When one of our guys does something like this--like Buzz Lukens (Rep. Donald E. (Buzz) Lukens (R-Ohio) who was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for having sex with a 15-year-old girl)--the Republicans say 'Buzz, I don't want you here.' There's a major difference in the value structure of the two parties. There are glaring differences between the two parties, and I just like to point it out. By pointing it out, you are accused of being controversial. I love to point it out and I also love to illustrate absurdity by being absurd."

A pregnant pause, then: "Anybody have a condom?"

A pretty blonde in a turquoise dress, who had written to Limbaugh saying she was dying to meet him, pranced up on stage and handed the portly talk-show host a prophylactic.

Then, Limbaugh launched into a routine familiar to his radio fans. He wrapped the condom around the microphone, announcing: "This, my friends, is safe talk." The audience cheered. "You are protected from any evil because of this.

"The idea of these things is not to prevent AIDS," he said of the condom. "The idea of these things is to sell 'em. . . .."

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