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E.I.B.? You Bet

Forget Rush Limbaugh's politics; he's quite simply the embodiment of excellence in broadcasting.

May 07, 1998|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Look, this is just between you and me, OK? I mean, if the guys I hang out with ever found out, I'd never live this down.

But I listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Not that I'm the only one, mind you. His nationally syndicated weekday talk show is heard on more than 600 stations and generates about $38 million in advertising revenue annually. Locally, Arbitron ratings for the first three months of 1998 show that Rush's 9 a.m.-noon show on KFI-AM (640) is the highest-rated show in the market--up 31% from the last quarter of 1997 and 13% from where it was a year ago. He's up in Philadelphia, New York and San Diego as well.

Still, the fact that I love Rush is not something I'm apt to use to impress people. His program has a reputation of attracting a certain type of listener--someone whose political philosophy falls somewhere between that of Pat Paulsen and Patrick Buchanan. In fact, before I pull into the parking garage at work I always make sure to switch over to National Public Radio or some high-brow classical music station in case I park next to someone I know.

What my colleagues don't know, however, is that since my car radio went on the fritz a few months ago, I've been balancing a small boom box on my knees during the drive to work to avoid missing my morning Rush.

Listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio is like watching Picasso paint or listening to Pavarotti sing. How many times do you get to experience a master at work? I mean, this guy really gets radio.

Rush is, however, an acquired taste. To the uninitiated, his bombast, his confidence and especially his budget-deficit-sized ego can be off-putting. He frequently introduces himself as having "talent on loan from God," for example, and he shoots down dissenting callers with quips such as "if you know more than me, which is highly unlikely. . . . " But once you realize it's all part of the shtick, it becomes funny. And that it fools so many gullible listeners only makes it funnier.

Is Rush objective, fair and straight with the facts? Absolutely not. He's more one-sided than a Bulls-Clippers game and he lists further to the right than a damaged supertanker. But then he never pretended to be CNN; instead, he sees his role as righting the wrongs of what he considers to be a liberally biased media. He calls himself "the truth detector" and sees himself as the avenging angel of conservatism.

But that's all part of the shtick, too, and as long as you realize that going in, there's no real harm done. After all, the left has its spokesmen, so the right is entitled to Rush.

But then I don't listen for the politics anyway. The truth is, I'm a lot closer to being a Deadhead than I'll ever be to being a Dittohead. And for all his right-wing rhetoric and faux confidence, Rush Limbaugh is no more a politician than, say, Sonny Bono was. What he is is an entertainer and a genius at his craft.

As a deejay for a Top 40 station in Sacramento, he was a hit, and he'd probably be a success hosting a sports-talk show too. In fact, as a former Kansas City Royals publicist and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steeler fan, he arguably knows more about sports than he does about politics anyway.

That he wound up with a show on politics 10 years ago is as much a product of the Reagan Revolution and the mood of the electorate as it is of Limbaugh's own conservatism. Contrary to popular belief--including his own--Rush followed the country to the right; he didn't lead it there.

But credit him for finding a niche and making it work, marvelously so. Even his detractors have to admit he redefined and revitalized AM radio, giving birth to imitators like Oliver North, G. Gordon Liddy and Mary Matalin. But while those hosts were--and are--much more rabid politically than Limbaugh, none of their shows could, in a good week, match the audience Rush averages on a daily basis. In fact, CBS Radio recently canceled Matalin's show, proving it's not the message but the messenger that draws listeners.

On Rush's show, current events become the jumping-off point for forays into broad topics, such as declining morality, lax educational standards or the hypocrisy of politicians (although here the hypocrites are always Democrats). Limbaugh also does a killer Bill Clinton imitation, and the show's comic skits--like the sound bite from a fictional "Larry King" show featuring James Carville and Kenneth Starr--are so outrageously funny, Rush often breaks into the middle of them to give his network's call letters, thereby preventing rivals from replaying the parodies on their shows.

Of course, you have to know who Carville and Starr are in order to understand the humor, which is why loyal fans like me are sticking with Rush. Where else can you get caught up on current events and be entertained at the same time? Well, maybe on C-SPAN, but they're not intentionally funny there.

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