How many listeners does Rush Limbaugh have? Well, in the press there are only two numbers you'll ever see -- 20 million or 15 million. Those are large numbers, so that is why Limbaugh is taken seriously and is believed to be influential.
I've got news for you -- those numbers are a total fabrication. They're made up out of whole cloth. You want to know where the 20 million number came from? It was first printed in Billboard magazine back in 1993. Here is the quote:
"Limbaugh's show is now heard on 610 stations and reaches approximately 20 million listeners, according to [Kit] Carson."
So who is Kit Carson? A guy known as Rush Limbaugh's "chief of staff." In other words, Rush's team simply made up the 20 million number and everyone believed it. He has never, ever presented any evidence to that effect.
The 15 million number comes from Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine. He is considered the leading expert on the talk radio industry. He is a good man and fights hard for his industry. You want to know where he came up with the number? Pretty much pulled it out of the sky. When Tommy Christopher of AOL News (at the time, he is now with Mediate) asked him how he arrived at the figure, here is what Harrison said:
They are only our thumbnail estimates based upon our contacts in the field, tracking of Arbitron estimates and understanding of the business. We make no claims as to "scientific" accuracy... [T]hey are not "ratings" per se.
I love that -- they are not ratings, per se. In other words, those are not his ratings at all! Harrison might have well said, "We took blind guesses and added 5 million, divided by four, multiplied by 12 and then sprinkled some fairy dust on it."
There are no national numbers for Rush's radio audience.
And it gets worse. Until 2007 radio had the worst rating system ever invented. I know, I worked in the industry, and we all knew the numbers were total nonsense. They measured ratings by giving people "diaries." They would keep these diaries for three months and all along they were supposed to be recording what they listened to on the radio every fifteen minutes. What a joke. Most people would fill out the diary at the end and scribble down what they thought they remembered.
So, under that system, big names do much better. You might not remember that you were listening to DJ Ralph McClusky on 106.7FM, but everyone remembered Howard and Rush. The bigger your name (and hype), the more people wrote you down whether they actually listened to you or not. They also wrote down they listened to you more often -- another huge advantage. And does anyone believe that people actually remembered what they were listening to at 2:15PM two and a half months ago?
Then in 2007, radio started switching over to something called Portable People Meters. This did not rely on human memory. It's a device that picks up the radio signal wherever you are and records the station you're actually listening to. So, what happened? It turns out people were listening to a lot more music than they realized and a lot less talk. So, the sports stations, the hot talk and the conservative talk stations were all hurt.
Last year, Crain's New York Business reported that Rush Limbaugh's ratings were down 33 percent. The portable people meters have been expanding to different markets throughout these years (they didn't just replace all of the diaries instantly in 2007, it's taken a while). So, it's unclear how much Rush was hurt by the more accurate readings last year and how much people just stopped listening to him.
But one thing is for sure -- he's hurt, dog! That's why we see the unprecedented apology from him on Sandra Fluke. When this controversy first broke, I predicted on our show that more advertisers would drop him (at the time, only two had). Advertisers are much more likely to drop a controversial guy if his numbers are already down. They'll ride it out if he's still delivering the goods. This is the same thing that happened to Imus. His ratings were miserable already, so advertisers didn't have enough incentive to stick with him when trouble arose.
So, Rush is in big trouble now as more and more advertisers peel off. He's in a tail spin. Why else would you triple down on the "slut" comments from Wednesday to Friday and then issue an apology on Saturday? He has over-reached (in his offensive comments) and undelivered (in his ratings). That's a lethal combo.
But Rush can easily prove me wrong. So, I'm issuing a challenge to him -- show us your ratings. He won't do it because he's embarrassed by them. He has never produced evidence of his ratings and he certainly won't do it now. In fact, I'll make a Mitt Romney like wager. I'll give him $10,000 if he can show us his 20 million listeners.
He claims that 20 million is daily listeners, so that'll be the standard we use. I laugh and laugh as I write that down. Some articles write it is a weekly number, some say monthly. There is no way he can prove even 15 million listeners weekly. I'd be shocked if he can show that kind of monthly number. And is it unique listeners or are they counting the same guys who tune in every day?
Rush's audience is a myth. He is a paper tiger. Do some people listen to him? Of course. Is it anywhere near the hype? Not remotely. Talk radio is a dying business. I wouldn't be surprised if his daily listeners didn't even reach a million. I wouldn't be surprised if we have more online viewers on The Young Turks (which are100 percent Google verifiable) than he has radio listeners.
Rush is a sad, old man that a couple of other sad, old men listen to. His days are numbered. Rush, it definitely wasn't nice knowing you. Tick tock, tick tock.