Today marks what might be the swan song for Rush Limbaugh; he’s being dropped from Cumulus, one of the biggest broadcasters in American radio. Many reports will state that it was due to a boycott and advertiser pressure thanks to the influence of social media.
It wasn’t. Instead, social media only drew attention to two very important things advertisers were apparently unaware of: Namely, that nobody actually knows how many people listen to Limbaugh’s show, and that most of his advertisers were completely unaware they were advertising to his audience.
Both require explanation, but let’s tackle the ratings one first: Simply put, nobody knows how many people listen to Rush Limbaugh. Arbitron has publicly stated it’s too complicated to figure out since Limbaugh’s show is broadcast at different times in different places and at different lengths, and it wouldn’t include the Armed Forces Radio Network anyway, which makes up 40% of the stations he broadcasts to.
This is true of literally any radio personality you can name, conservative, liberal, or neutral. Radio ratings are terrible. But the fact that his ratings are nebulous, at best, makes any advertiser nervous.
Then there’s the fact that most of his advertisers discovered, the hard way, they were on his show by getting angry letters. That’s because of a technique called “network radio advertising”; essentially, you buy an ad, and the broadcaster runs the ad across their entire network. Here’s the problem: They guarantee an audience size and a time period where the ad will run and… that’s it.
So, if an ad goes out at noon Eastern Time, you could turn up on Limbaugh, the local sports talk station, you could be the lead-out for Crazy Ira and The Douche; it’s a crapshoot. Unless you’re willing to track each market your spot airs in and what the station happens to be broadcasting, you have no idea where your ad is running, and probably the network itself can’t tell you either; programming decisions are, obviously, up to the individual radio stations. It’s what tripped up Netflix, and a whole host of other advertisers as well.
It also revealed misbehavior on the part of radio stations, regional ad buyers, and other assorted people who for various reasons decided to run these network ads during Rush’s show sometimes despite advertisers explicitly telling them not to. It’s rather telling how many advertisers stated, in public, that they explicitly had a policy against taking out advertising on “partisan programming”. Some may have been full of crap, but if you think about it, why would they want to be associated with somebody who pisses off half the country, left-wing or right-wing? Just ask left-wingers like Jim Hightower; if you’re a political firebrand, it’s hard to get ads.
Social media was important in the sense that it made people, and advertisers, aware of the problem, and drew enough controversy to create the initial focus. But the reason this has gone on so long and had such a protracted effect was due to revealing some serious structural flaws in radio advertising. Radio advertisers were fudging the numbers and lying to their customers… and the fallout from that isn’t quite over yet.
(Image courtesy of Fresh Conservative on Flickr)