Rush Limbaugh’s Sacramento rise

On a 1 to 10, how would you rate your favorite radio hosts? I have not listened to the radio in about five years.

I mainly tuned in to KGO radio during the years I worked in landscaping (1986-1988) and listened to a lot of talk radio. On rare occasions, I tuned in to Rush. My favorite was a week he spent in Washington D.C. interviewing people like Morton Kondracke. I wasn’t as interested in his solo show.

I preferred the more cerebral approach of KABC’s Michael Jackson who had lots of guests.

I’ve never had strong feelings about Rush in any direction (well, I found him a bit much, a bit too cartoonish for my comfort) and I don’t remember people talking about him prior to his going national. I’ve probably spent fewer than 250 hours total listening to him, but many of my friends preferred him to Dennis Prager, which surprised me. It felt to me that Rush catered to a crowd with an average IQ of about 105 while Prager catered to an audience with an average IQ of about 115. However, Rush got the appeal of Donald Trump more than a year before Prager got it.

Prager has said his audience demographics are about 50-50 between men and women while I suspect Rush’s listenership was about 90% male. My Youtube audience according to its analytics is 100% male.

I noticed a dramatic uptick in the quality of his show once Rush began national syndication in 1988.

What made Rush different from every other major talk show host who discussed politics is that you usually felt happier after listening to Rush. By contrast, after listening to Prager or Marc Levin or Sean Hannity or Michael Savage, I usually felt more anger and resentment. Is there any other political talk show host who consistently leaves people happier?

From the Los Angeles Times:

It was 1984, and young Limbaugh had been fired from at least five stations in three cities. He’d even left radio for a few years, and then returned — only to be fired once again after less than a year at KMBZ in Kansas City. At the time, he was “mired in loneliness and aimlessly walking through life,” as he recalled years later.

But a racist joke told on-air halfway across the country would soon set the stage — and, in retrospect, perhaps the tone — for his meteoric rise.

The 9-a.m.-to-noon slot at a middle-of-the-pack AM radio station in Sacramento was no aspirant’s idea of a dream job. But the KFBK position was newly vacant and offered Limbaugh one last shot at trying to make it on-air. (The station’s previous morning conservative talk radio host had resigned after a brouhaha over said “joke.”)

Limbaugh found an undeniably fertile audience in liberal California’s capital, where the average listener was “familiar with the workings of government,” as Limbaugh put it, and didn’t need to be cajoled into calling in. “In Kansas City I had some doubts that I could do it well, but here — this is the way it should be,” he told the Sacramento Bee a few weeks after taking the job.

The week that Limbaugh made his Sacramento debut, talk radio veteran David G. Hall — then a new reporter at the station — heard a voice blaring from a speaker as he made his way through an office hallway.

“I stopped cold in my tracks,” Hall recalled to The Times in 2003. He could hear someone “going on and on about Teddy Kennedy and Chappaquiddick. I thought, ‘Oh, this guy’s got a crackpot guest.’ ” But even in its nascent form, the Rush Limbaugh show rarely did guests. The “crackpot” voice was coming from the host’s chair.

It was at KFBK that Limbaugh “began to develop his format: music; wacky, sometimes savage, humor and conservative politics in a town thought to be dominated by liberals,” as The Times reflected in 1991.

Even his signature music, the instrumental opening of the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone,” dates to his Sacramento show, as do trademark lines like “on the cutting edge of societal evolution” and his decades-long riff about disliking Rio Linda.

One could argue that Limbaugh would ultimately reshape the Republican Party in his own image. But he couldn’t have done it without the commuters of Sacramento, who helped build his national launchpad with their radio dials. One can only wonder how differently the last few decades of American political history might have played out had Limbaugh not found the initial audience needed to propel his career into the stratosphere.

When Limbaugh began his nearly four-year stint at the station, few in the city knew his name. Three years later, he was serving as the grand marshal of the local St. Patrick’s Day parade and his popularity was “virtually unparalleled in Sacramento talk show history,” according to a 1987 Sacramento Bee story. Ratings tripled during his tenure. He also made his debut as TV regular while in Sacramento, with a local news segment in which he faced off against the liberal mayor of Davis.

Bob Baker wrote in the Los Angeles Times Jan. 20, 1991:

Welcome to a world where Howard Cosell’s voice seems to have been grafted to Pat Buchanan’s brain and amplified through the cracked sensibilities of the Stanford Marching Band…

Mister Limbaugh’s neighborhood is the hottest place in talk radio because it is unlike any other spot on the dial, a gag- and bombast-infested, stream-of-consciousness current-events lecture that careens between blood-serious conservative politics and deadpan irreverence. It is a place without any guests, a place where the host is the show, a place where callers play second fiddle, their views meticulously screened to avoid any sluggish or repetitive moments that might bog down the breakneck pace.

The show is so flat-out weird that Limbaugh affably advises new listeners that they’ll require six weeks to understand it. By then, he says, they will be delivered to “the cutting edge of societal evolution.” You will never have to read another newspaper again, he promises, the way a faith healer might. “I will do all your reading, and I will tell you what to think about it.”

…Rush Hudson Limbaugh III, who turned 40 two weeks ago, is a booming-voiced, 6-foot-tall, 320-pound man with thinning hair who lives a relatively hermit-like, computer-nerd existence until show time, when he seems to erupt into the mike. There is supreme grace and confidence to this bluster. Yet Limbaugh was a failure through most of his broadcasting life until he did something Americans still do best. He reinvented himself. Uncomfortable with traditional restrictive radio formats, he developed one that fit his quirky, opinionated nature and appealed to many listeners who found conventional talk radio too predictable or ponderous.

…Limbaugh freely admits just about everything on the air: his divorces (two), his previous firings (way more than two), his weight (a gain of 100 pounds in the past five years), his new home-exercise program (40 minutes on a treadmill at 3.5 m.p.h.), his tendency to perspire heavily, the fact that he hates crowds unless he’s performing in front of them, the fact that he cried in bed the other night watching a tape of “Field of Dreams.”

Yet for all his excesses–indeed, because of them–Limbaugh has sculpted a program that is far more compelling than either the civilized talk-show universe of KABC’s Jackson or the confrontational nether world of “shock radio,” in which audience and guests are routinely assaulted. He brings an almost frightening enthusiasm to the program–a quality that, ironically, makes him seem boorish when he appears on the cooler medium of television. The show reflects not merely Limbaugh’s gotta-keep-busy personality but also his background. He’s a news junkie, a man who overcompensates for being a college dropout by devouring and dissecting all manner of newspapers and magazines–he says he spends three hours reading news and analysis before each day’s show. He’s a radio junkie who started working as a rock ‘n’ roll deejay in the golden, pre-FM days of radio while still a teen-ager and maintains the art of breathlessly pacing a show, cutting from one factlet to another without breaking stride. He’s a political junkie, delighted to interpret everything but the weather in a liberal-versus-conservative context. He’s an attention junkie, a man who looks at his fame with the heartfelt reverence most people reserve for their newborn baby. He’s a control junkie: The show is his, period. Callers who attempt to duplicate the host’s style of ironic humor are reminded never to try it in their homes…

Until the middle of last year, Limbaugh reveled frequently in acidic “gay community updates,” belittling gay activists for besieging America for a cure for AIDS, a problem that was, to Limbaugh’s mind, entirely of their own making. He became, on occasion, the target of protests by AIDS activists. Now, however, you rarely hear the topic.

“I frankly got tired of being identified as a gay basher,” Limbaugh says wearily one evening as he drives through downtown Los Angeles during a week of promotional broadcasts from KFI. He is steering a Jaguar, on loan from a local dealer, enjoying an aimless drive–west down Wilshire, through Brentwood, back east on Sunset–a pleasure beyond his reach in Manhattan, where he does not own a car. He is not enjoying this public notion that forever plagues him, the idea that he is insensitive. He wishes it would go away. Don’t they understand? The gags come so fast to him, and he hates to repress any of them. Why can’t he have his fun, soaring from one political diatribe to another with as many midstream belly laughs as he can muster? Hey, he asks, didn’t you see the recent essay in Esquire, “The Case Against Sensitivity”? That’s just what he’s been saying on the show for months–that “sensitivity” is the new fascism, that you can no longer make fun of “politically correct” groups. What happened to free speech? Why doesn’t everybody lighten up? Why do liberals assume he’s a racist just because he taunts every black leader from Jesse Jackson to David Dinkins? That doesn’t mean he has anything against blacks, he insists.

…In New York, Limbaugh consolidated the call-screening rules that allow the program to sound like what a number of radio consultants have admiringly described as a local show projected across the country. You won’t hear two consecutive calls from the same geographic area. Nor will you hear many of the staples of other right-wing broadcasters. Limbaugh regards them as viruses that kill off the broad audience he craves.

“I don’t want any John Birchers, no one-world-government theories,” he says. “No UFOs, no abortion calls in the context of when life begins, no gun control in the 20-year-old, cliched argument, nothing from people who are going to read anything (on the air), no Bible–faith is a sacred and personal thing. I don’t want devout believers of any religion or cause because they don’t think. I want people who think about things with a passion. And I do not want racists or bigots to feel they have a home on the show. It’s an entertainment show.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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