No one set out to turn the airwaves into a political weapon—much less deputize talk-radio hosts as the ideological enforcers of a major American political party. Instead the story of how the GOP establishment lost its power over the Republican message—and eventually the party itself—begins with frantic AM radio executives and a former Top 40 disc jockey, Rush Limbaugh.
In the late 1980s, AM radio was desperate for new content. Listeners had migrated to FM because music sounded better on there, and advertising dollars had followed. Talk-radio formats offered a lifeline—unique programming that FM didn’t have. And on August 1, 1988, Limbaugh debuted nationally. At the outset, Limbaugh wasn’t angling to become a political force—he was there to entertain and make money. Limbaugh’s show departed from the staid, largely nonpartisan, interview and caller-based programs that were the norm in earlier talk radio. Instead, Limbaugh was a consummate showman who excited listeners by being zany and fun and obliterating boundaries, offering up something the likes of which many Americans had never heard before.
Limbaugh conveyed his politics through everything from soap-opera teasers complete with humorous casting choices—in one titled Gulf War Won, Betty White drew the assignment of the first lady Barbara Bush, while Limbaugh cast James Earl Jones as General Colin Powell—and gags like “caller abortions,” in which screaming and vacuum-cleaner sounds drowned out the voice on the other end of the phone.