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A Rush to Dr. Laura?

Survey puts Schlessinger, Stern ahead of Limbaugh as leading talk hosts. But not everyone agrees.


Rush Limbaugh is no longer No. 1 on talk radio's hit parade--at least, according to a new survey published by Talkers magazine.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is.

Schlessinger, reports Talkers, trade journal of the talk-radio industry, has a total national audience of 18 million, followed by Howard Stern with 17.5 million. Limbaugh dropped to third place with 17.25 million listeners.

After the Big Three, listenership falls off sharply. Among other national hosts heard locally, Art Bell is tied for fourth place at 8.75 million listeners; Don Imus follows in sixth place with 7.5 million; and John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou are tied for 14th with 2 million.

Although Tom Leykis doesn't make the cut among the top 15, Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers, noted in an interview that he came in "very, very close." Westwood One, which syndicates Leykis' show, reports his national audience at about 1.98 million.

The biannual survey estimates the number of people age 12 and over who tune in to a program for at least five continuous minutes during an average week. The survey total is rounded to the nearest 250,000.

While Schlessinger gained 2.5 million listeners over the past six months, Stern advanced by 5.5 million.

"Stern is hot, hot, hot," Harrison said. "With his movie ["Private Parts"], with his becoming increasingly mainstream, more stations are picking him up, and he's taken that one step beyond. He's a giant of broadcasting, and he's no longer considered a sideshow."

Harrison's report is noteworthy because radio, unlike television, has no official list of its most popular nationwide programs. Arbitron measures listenership by hours of the day, not by show titles. So unless you know every outlet and time period of a given syndicated show, there is no way to calculate its national audience with certainty--and syndicators keep their station lineups secret, for competitive reasons.

What's particularly interesting is that Stern has by far the fewest stations among the top three. According to figures provided by their respective syndicators, Limbaugh is on 599 U.S. stations, Schlessinger on 445 and Stern on 44. For that matter, Kobylt and Chiampou, with 63 stations, have only one-third the outlets of Leykis, with 176.

The lesson is that the size of the market, the strength of the broadcast signal and time of day you're on is far more crucial in building audience than sheer quantity of stations. As Harrison explained in Talkers: "Audience size can grow geometrically as you move up from the unrated through the multitiered ranks of the rated markets. . . . One Stern morning show in New York can be worth more than 50 Limbaugh midday shows in the heartland in terms of actual bodies listening."

Or, as Harrison said by phone: "Howard Stern may not be on as many stations, but he's on the big FM music stations in [listener-heavy] morning drive."

Meanwhile, the Talkers survey shows that Limbaugh's decline appears to be steady. He dropped 500,000 listeners in the past six months, and 2.25 million over the past year. At his peak two years ago, the king of conservative political talk had 21 million listeners.

"I wouldn't say that Limbaugh has gotten weak," Harrison says, "but he's not riding the wave of coming events. He's riding the wave of fading events."

Harrison says that it's not Limbaugh's politics causing the decline, but rather the genre of political talk. "The public no longer has the hope that problems can be resolved by the harsh critics of the status quo," he said.

At Premiere Radio Networks Inc. in Sherman Oaks, Schlessinger was fairly ecstatic about the Talkers report that she is No. 1.

"If you could see me," she quipped by phone during a break in her show, "you'd see me jump up in the air and click my heels. . . . It is quite gratifying that preaching, teaching and nagging about morals and values is so well embraced."

Steve Lehman, president of Premiere, called Schlessinger "an extraordinary talent" and said with pride: "She has become the first woman in the history of radio to become the Talkers' No. 1 personality."

Nevertheless, in the "Alice in Wonderland" world that radio occasionally inhabits, Lehman generally refers to a different set of national numbers. Those figures show that Limbaugh and Schlessinger--both syndicated by Premiere--each has audiences of about 20 million, but Limbaugh is on top, Lehman says, with Schlessinger "within two-tenths of 1%."

Lehman's figures are estimates too--compiled by a company called Marketron, which takes the list of a particular host's stations, supplied by the syndicator, and matches the stations to Arbitron's numbers for total audience in the appropriate time slot in the top 100 of the nation's 267 markets.

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