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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Huck on Track to Rule Wingnut Radio

For an insightful read about the future of wingnut talk radio, check out The Daily Beast’s “Mike Huckabee Brings on Rush Limbaugh’s Decline” by former Bush II speechwriter David Frum. It seems that the 30 sponsors bailing in the wake of Limbaugh’s ‘slut’ tirade may not be his most worrisome concern, as Frum explains:

…On April 2, Limbaugh will face a more-serious challenge. That’s when the new Mike Huckabee show launches on 100 stations in Limbaugh’s very own noon-to-3 time slot.
Huckabee’s competition threatens Limbaugh not only because Huckabee has already proven himself an attractive and popular TV broadcaster, but also because Huckabee is arriving on the scene at a time when Limbaugh’s business model is crashing around him.
To understand the power of Huckabee’s challenge to Limbaugh, you have to understand the strange economics of talk radio. Most talk-radio programs offer radio stations this deal: we’ll give you three hours of content for free. (Some programs–cough, Glenn, cough, Beck–have actually offered to pay radio stations to accept their content.) Those three hours will include 54 minutes of ad time. That ad time is split between the radio station and the show: each gets 27 minutes to sell.

But Limbaugh, Frum notes, was able to charge for his content and rake in big bucks in advertising — until 2009, when his listeners began shrinking to the point where they are now about half as many as three years ago. Limbaugh responded by cranking up his “TSL” ratings, ‘time spent listening’ — by pandering to his hard core base, getting them to listen longer. Frum adds:

That imperative explains why Limbaugh kept talking about Sandra Fluke for so long. He was boosting his TSL to compensate for his dwindling market share. Few things boost TSL like getting the old folks agitated over how much sexy sex these shameless young hussies are having nowadays. (And make no mistake: Limbaugh’s audience is very old. One station manager quipped to me, “The median age of Limbaugh’s audience? Deceased.”)
……Limbaugh’s audience not only skews old; it skews male. It was already 72 percent male in 2009–more male than that of almost any other program on radio or TV. Advertisers are not nearly as interested in talking to old men as to middle-aged women. If Huckabee can draw such women to his new program, as he has drawn them to his TV show, he will reshape the market.
…Limbaugh’s advertisers and his stations had already begun to feel ripped off. To quote my station-manager friend again: “I don’t mind paying for content. But I do mind paying for trouble.” So advertisers revolted against the TSL strategy, with Sears, JCPenney, and many other sponsors dropping the show. Many of the local advertisers who buy their ads from the local stations rather than from the syndicators have been ordering that their purchased minutes be placed on some less-controversial program.

Enter Huckabee.

Limbaugh’s calculation that his core advertisers must return always rested on the assumption that there was nowhere else to go. Suddenly, in the worst month of Limbaugh’s career, somewhere else has appeared: a lower-priced alternative, with big audience reach and a host an advertiser can trust never, ever to abuse a student as a “slut” and “prostitute.”
The new Huckabee show’s slogan is “more conversation; less confrontation.” “I don’t want it to be a show that every day, every hour, pushes everyone’s buttons to raise their blood pressure,” Huckabee says. “I figure the cost of high blood pressure is enough already.”
Huckabee’s politics are emphatically conservative of course, both on social and economic issues. Yet his politics differ in important ways from those of the Limbaugh-influenced Republican electorate…The less-strident Huckabee approach arises both from his experience as a long-serving governor in a Democratic-leaning state and from Huckabee’s famously genial temperament. “I have to believe that there are people who are highly opinionated but who actually find it informative and engaging to find out what the other side is thinking,” he says. “And not through a shouting match, but through an adult-level, civil conversation.”

While it is gratifying to see Limbaugh tank, Dems should hold the high-fives for a while. Huckabee is a shrewder reactionary than Limbaugh, and may be even more aggressive about pushing the wingnut agenda in electoral politics, albeit with more subtlety. In addition, Huckabee does have a certain gift for the soundbite put-down, as evidenced by his “We’ve had a congress that spends money like John Edwards in a beauty shop” zinger (this and other Huck quips here) during the early ’08 campaign. It’s not hard to imagine Huckabee besting the four current GOP presidential contenders, had he decided to enter the fray. His comments to the contrary, he may be laying the groundwork for a 2016 run.
Huckabee’s Achilles’ Heel, however, is his tendency to blather, a weakness which has damaged many ‘shock jock’ careers, from Imus to Limbaugh and a host of lesser-knowns in between. Last fall, Huckabee ‘jokingly’ (wink, wink) suggested creating confusion about election day at a pancake breakfast/rally in Mason, Ohio, as Molly Reilly tells in her HuffPo report::

“Make a list,” said Huckabee, referring to supporters’ family and friends. “Call them and ask them, ‘Are you going to vote on Issue 2 and are you going to vote for it?’ If they say no, well, you just make sure that they don’t go vote. Let the air out of their tires on election day. Tell them the election has been moved to a different date. That’s up to you how you creatively get the job done…The crowd laughed at Huckabee’s remarks. In 2009, he made a similar joke in Virginia, saying, “Let the air our of their tires … keep ’em home. Do the Lord’s work.”

Whether Huckabee refrains from advocating voter suppression on the air waves in his new gig remains to be seen. It’s good that Limbaugh is beginning to fade away like Glenn Beck. But Dems have always had a weaker talk radio echo chamber than Republicans — and the GOP’s edge may soon get even sharper.

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