Rush Limbaugh wants you to know he's not worried about the rumors that he's losing airtime on over 40 Cumulus stations: "What you're being treated to is just a public business negotiation," Limbaugh said on Monday. And he could be, in part, right: Politico reported on Tuesday that Hannity and Limbaugh were suddenly back on the table for Cumulus, but without a clear sense of how the contract disputes could be resolved. Clear Channel, who controls the distribution rights for the two hosts, had previously asked for more money than Cumulus was willing to dish out for their shows.
Limbaugh, who declined to get into the specifics of the Cumulus negotiations, added, "You are gonna be able to get this radio program on as many, if not more, radio stations down the road than it's on now." His Monday remarks weren't very specific, but Limbaugh will have more time to address the rumors tonight: the radio host will get an hour-long interview on Fox News, just one day before the contract deadline with Cumulus.
While Limbaugh's sense that things are only going up for his show seems overblown, Politico's Tuesday report seemed to at least a medium-sized "calm down" sign for those who are already celebrating the rumored blow to Limbaugh and Hannity. Limbaugh, for whom "polarizing" isn't really a strong enough word, is either the savoir of talk radio, or the millstone around its neck, depending on who you read. But even for those cheering the rumors, the threat of a Cumulus loss doesn't seem to mean that much for Limbaugh's reach: while Buzzfeed's Peter Lauria noted that it leaves the hosts with gaps in five major media markets — a huge problem for the shows, and for Clear Channel, it also explains that both Cumulus and Clear Channel have been anticipating (and even, possibly, expecting) at least a partial parting of ways over syndication of the shows for nearly a year:
Instead of paying Clear Channel to license shows from Limbaugh and Hannity, Cumulus is now able to use its own homegrown conservative hosts — such as Mike Huckabee, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage — on its stations, allowing it to reap more financial upside.
And as Politico notes, the dispute quite possibly has something to do already existing plan by Clear Channel to get Limbaugh on their stations instead in some Cumulus markets:
Earlier this year, Clear Channel told Cumulus they could no longer have the righs to Limbaugh and Hannity in the New York market. Insread, Clear Channel would carry the hosts on their own station, WOR. Clear Channel gave Cumulus terms for other markets, with back-up plans for distribution should Cumulus decide not to renew the contracts.
On Sunday, in case you missed it, Politico reported that Cumulus would drop Limbaugh and Sean Hannity's talk shows at the end the year. While that dispute was chalked up to a disagreement over the cost of the distribution rights, there's another clear factor waiting in the wings. For months, Cumulus has complained publicly about lost advertising dollars from Limbaugh's remarks on-air about Sandra Fluke in 2012, and it doesn't look like Limbaugh has much love for the company, either. The Fluke comments — Limbaugh called her a 'slut' and a 'prostitute' — inspired a still-existing boycott of Limbaugh's ad space: almost all of the top 50 advertisers have a no Hannity/Limbaugh rule.
Noting that the rumors became an insta-source of talking points on the downfall of conservative media (even though Politico noted that Cumulus would probably replace Hannity and Limbaugh with other well-known conservative hosts), there's been a corresponding insta-pushback from some corners on Politico's framing of the rumor. Some, like the Daily News, would prefer to say that Limbaugh and Hannity are the ones leaving Cumulus in the dust, and not the other way around. Limbaugh himself blames Cumulus's ad department, and not the boycott of his show's ad spaces, as the reason behind the company's falling revenue. Entertainment Weekly interviewed a couple of trade experts who think that Limbaugh is too important for Cumulus to walk away from their programming.
Despite all that pushing and shoving over who's gonna win this round, and What This Means For Conservative Talk Radio, we're just going to have to wait and see what shakes out of the current negotiations. But it seems very unlikely that Cumulus is willing to or interested in making an ideological stand against the content of Limbaugh's program. For one thing, he says awful things all the time. But the Fluke comments specifically are still, most certainly, on the minds of Cumulus as they assess the worth of Limbaugh to their stations, thanks to their apparent parlay into something that would concern a business, as we've explained before: an advertising revenue risk. In many ways, that advertising boycott speaks much louder than whatever ends up happening between Cumulus and Clear Channel.
For their part, Cumulus is also remaining vague on the negotiations. On Tuesday, Cumulus Media had a second-quarter earnings call, which opened with a preemptive strike on the Limbaugh question. CEO Lew Dickey said, "Let me answer one question before it’s asked." Without naming names, Dickey referred to the company's current reassessment of its programming, noting that they expected to announce any changes in the near future.