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OPINION - Rush's affiliates may be changing in some very large cities

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU)   There’s been a lot of buzz in the talk-radio world surrounding Rush Limbaugh. He may be changing affiliates in more than 60 large cities around the U.S. It would be the biggest shake-up in the talk radio landscape in the last decade.

Rush Limbaugh’s show is distributed by Premiere Radio Networks. It’s the syndication arm of Clear Channel – the largest owner of radio stations in the country. But in some cities, Rush Limbaugh is heard on radio stations owned by Cumulus, the number-two station owner in the U.S. and a major Clear Channel competitor. It’s set up the unusual situation that in some cities Rush competes against his syndicator’s parent-company.

Clear Channel has tolerated this arrangement in most cases. Why? Two reasons. First, in some large cities the Cumulus station has a larger coverage area, heritage call letters, higher ratings – or some combination of the three. Second, Clear Channel doesn’t mind the opportunity to sell commercials on its competitor’s airwaves. (Remember, six commercial minutes in each hour of The Rush Limbaugh Show are sold by the network, not the local affiliates.)

Premiere has a reputation of demanding top dollar of its affiliates. And why shouldn’t they – Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are both top-rated hosts. Cumulus wants to manage its costs (of course), and has also beefed up its stable of syndicated talk hosts with now include Mike Huckabee, Mark Levin and Michael Savage.

Contract talks between the two media giants have reached a snag.

If Cumulus walks, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would move to Clear Channel stations in many cities immediately. That would include New York, Chicago and Detroit. Clear Channel has already moved Rush to their own stations in Minneapolis, Boston, New Orleans, and Raleigh-Durham.

The situation has been fascinating to talk-radio insiders like me because Rush Limbaugh is an undisputed ratings winner. It’s unusual for stations to give up highly-rated programming. Cumulus is claiming financial losses from the Sandra Flucke episode from a year ago. That’s dubious. There is still an advertising market for controversial programming. And, most interesting of all, Cumulus doesn’t have a good on-air alterative. The Mike Huckabee Show, while more advertiser-friendly, is a ratings loser. Michael Savage, who has dreamed of taking on Rush head-to-head and may get his wish, is an inferior program with a host nearing retirement age. Mark Levin, a personal friend of Rush, would prefer to keep his regular evening time slot.

No one knows how this will play out. But now that these bitter negotiations have become public, a sweeping change is more likely than ever.

Chris Conley