Once the biggest name in conservative Talk, Rush Limbaugh, and the Radio Network which spawned and distributed him to all major markets are on the way out. The former “Clear Channel”, which gobbled up stations across the country to promote and foster conservative talk radio principally on AM Stations is near Bankruptcy.
One of the favorite pastimes for sports fans is commiserating over the worst contract their home team ever made; guffawing over management’s decision to waste tens of millions of dollars for a player who never justified the huge payday. (See: Gilbert Arenas.)
For talk radio, there’s probably only one contract that enters that realm of notoriety: Rush Limbaugh’s eight-year, $400-million deal, signed in the summer of 2008 with his longtime radio employer Premiere Radio Networks.
Owned by Clear Channel Communications, which has since changed its name to iHeartRadio, Premiere’s Limbaugh deal instantly dwarfed any payout in AM/FM history. (Only Howard Stern’s contract with Sirius was larger.) The contract, which included a staggering $100 million signing bonus, never panned out as the wheels began to come off Limbaugh’s radio empire.
This year, his contract is up and the timing couldn’t be worse. The talker is facing ratings hurdles, aging demographics, and an advertising community that increasingly views him as toxic, thanks in part to his days-long sexist meltdown over Sandra Fluke in 2012. (He’s also stumbling through the GOP primary season.)
Concurrently, iHeartRadio’s parent company, iHeartMedia, is heading to court, teetering on bankruptcy. The once-dominant radio behemoth is saddled with $20 billion in debt, thanks to a misguided leveraged takeover engineered by Bain Capital in 2008, the same year the radio giant inked its disastrous Limbaugh deal.
Today those two defining missteps from the past are crossing paths, which means Limbaugh’s radio future has never looked less bright. This, as Limbaugh passes his 65th birthday, which seems to mirror his audience’s age.
“Who would even want someone whose audience is aging and is considered toxic to many advertisers,” asked RadioInsight last year.
Some industry insiders are wondering if his AM days are over and if Limbaugh’s futures rest with satellite radio, where advertiser indifference wouldn’t penalize him. The problem? His audience is so old. “With the aging and decline of Limbaugh’s audience, Sirius may not be as viable an option as it once was,” Darryl Parks tells Media Matters. A former talk radio host, programmer, and self-identified Republican, Parks writes about the industry at DarrylParksBlog.
Indeed, the conservative talk radio format has morphed into the Classic Rock of talk; super-serving the same aging demo for the last twenty-plus years.
“Everything needs to evolve, but stations, conservative talk hosts and programmers have decided to double down and focus on the aging Baby Boomers,” says Parks. “When a group is no longer appealing to advertisers, that spells the end of any radio format.”
The former Clear Channel network owns 850 radio stations across the country and the syndication rights to right-wing stars such as Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s the company, feasting on the fruits of media deregulation, gorged itself with profits. (It also bullied the music business for years.)
Since then, not so much. And what a brutal ride it’s been for investors:
Clear Channel stock price, January 2000: $90.
Clear Channel stock value, April 2007: $39.
iHeartMedia stock price, July 2011: $8.30.
iHeartMedia stock price at close of yesterday: $1.15.
The company hasn’t reported a profit since 2007. Today, iHeartMedia is busy selling off assets in an effort to shore up its bottom line. “It’s a case of burning your sofa to heat up the house,” Philip Brendel, a credit analyst recently told Bloomberg. “It’s not necessarily a good idea but you’re running out of options.”…More Good News Here…