Tuesday, March 13, 2012

After Apology, National Advertisers Are Still Shunning Limbaugh


IN place of paid advertisers, public service announcements now fill some of the time between Rush Limbaugh’s monologues on radio stations, a consequence of an ad boycott against the conservative talk show host that is now nearly two weeks old.

It is, analysts say, the most serious rebellion against “The Rush Limbaugh Show” in the more than 20 years that the show has been broadcast. This week, new evidence emerged that the ad boycott was costing Premiere Radio Networks — the show’s syndicator — money, though the total amounts are unclear.

This month, powered by online organizing tools, liberal activist groups and other critics of Mr. Limbaugh have successfully highlighted the host’s repeated attacks on a Georgetown University law student, Sandra Fluke, and persuaded companies to advertise elsewhere, at least temporarily.

Mr. Limbaugh apologized to Ms. Fluke — a supporter of the Obama administration’s contraception policy — on March 3, three days after calling her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” but national advertisers have continued to shun his show. The case is a reminder that associations with offensive figures — no matter how popular they might be — carries risks for companies.

To date, Premiere, a unit of Clear Channel, has stood by Mr. Limbaugh, defending his right to express opinions and otherwise saying next to nothing in public. “They’re giving it time,” said a radio executive with direct knowledge of Premiere’s strategy.

About 600 stations carry the weekday afternoon show by Mr. Limbaugh, who is the most popular radio talk show host in the United States. (Two stations are known to have canceled the show since the uproar started.) Stations get to broadcast local ads during the show, and in exchange they play the national ads that Premiere provides.

On Monday, Premiere caused a stir by telling its news and talk affiliates — the ones that carry Mr. Limbaugh’s show — that for the next two weeks, they could stop running the barter ad spots they were normally required to broadcast. “Replace them with LifeLock and Lear Financial or a local spot of your choice,” said an internal memorandum, referring to two companies that remain sponsors of Mr. Limbaugh’s show.

Premiere said the suspension of its barter spots (which are played by stations in lieu of paying for services directly) did not affect live programs like Mr. Limbaugh’s show, but its critics interpreted the move as proof that local radio stations were being affected by the boycott. The Web site that first published the memo, Radio-Info.com, called it unusual.

Similarly, Carl Marcucci, the managing editor for the Radio and Television Business Report, wrote in a column last week that companies that didn’t advertise on Mr. Limbaugh’s show, but did advertise on the newscasts that precede his show, “are being spooked into staying away” from the radio format in general. He said that the “Twitter bombing” by Mr. Limbaugh’s opponents “is hurting the broadcast companies and the jobs that they create.”

As the memo suggested, the boycott has been a headache for the advertisers and the local radio stations that have received complaints from Mr. Limbaugh’s critics. There have been “logistical difficulties” in moving ads away from Mr. Limbaugh’s program, Lewis Dickey, the chief executive of Cumulus Media, said Monday in a conference call with investors.

Last week, some local listeners even noticed silence — “dead air,” in industry parlance — instead of ads, according to Media Matters for America, a liberal media monitoring group that has been campaigning against Mr. Limbaugh for years.

Media Matters found that on Tuesday, on the New York City station WABC, nearly every commercial spot was a public service announcement, typically played free by stations for nonprofit groups and causes.

Although the dearth of paid commercials may be unpleasant for Premiere, it has had only a minimal effect on the company’s finances, according to a person with knowledge of the company who insisted on anonymity because the information was confidential. Less than $2 million in revenue has been lost to date, the person said, and some of that has been recouped by moving ads to other slots.

Ad boycotts happen from time to time across the media landscape, and they vary in their effectiveness. In one notable case in 2009 that liberal activists see as a template for this case, advertisers abandoned Glenn Beck’s television show after he called President Obama a racist.

In this instance, the companies that have withdrawn their ads “are more or less articulating their longstanding policies of avoiding controversial content,” said Jeff Haley, the president and chief executive of the Radio Advertising Bureau. “No-buy lists” routinely make the rounds in the radio industry, identifying companies that don’t want their ads to be broadcast on certain programs.

Along with LifeLock and Lear Financial, at least one other advertiser, Hillsdale College, remains supportive of Mr. Limbaugh. An ad for Hillsdale, a small conservative college in southern Michigan, appeared on his Web site on Tuesday. In a statement, Hillsdale said that his remarks about Ms. Fluke were “of a kind that are destructive to reasonable political discourse,” but that it accepted his apologies.

It is unclear whether Mr. Limbaugh’s audience has been affected by the uproar. Arbitron, the measurement company that the radio industry relies upon, does not release national ratings the way that Nielsen does for television.

But the tumult has been a boon for liberal broadcasters who love to rail against Mr. Limbaugh. Liberal hosts on the cable news channel MSNBC, in particular, have dedicated segment after segment to the ad boycott. Conservative critics of MSNBC are said to be considering their own boycott campaign, aiming at liberal commentators like the Rev. Al Sharpton.

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