WEST PALM BEACH, FLA. — Exactly 50 years ago, a 20-year-old student at Southeast Missouri State University was flunking all of his classes. Yet, he had a passion for one thing: Radio. Armed with some experience at a hometown radio station at age 16, he accepted a position as an on-air personality at a Top 40 radio station in McKeesport, Pa., using the name “Jeff Christie.”
That individual, who celebrated his 70th birthday on January 12, would revert to his birth name in 1983. He’d also transition from music radio to become of one the most renowned and, to some, reviled, talk show hosts in American history.
All are now pausing to reflect on the life of Rush Limbaugh, who has lost his battle with Stage 4 lung cancer.
An official announcement was made just after Noon Eastern on Wednesday (2/17) by Limbaugh’s wife, Kathryn, on his radio show. “Losing a loved one is terribly difficult, even more so when that loved one is larger than life,” she said. “Rush will forever be the greatest of all time.”
The news was shared by FOX News at 12:10pm Eastern.
Limbaugh had been absent from his Premiere Networks-syndicated daily talk show since February 2, with guest hosts called in to substitute. As recently as February 10, show producer “Bo Snerdley,” a.k.a. James Golden, thanked listeners for their prayers. On Twitter, he wrote, “Our prayers are with Rush as he continues to fight the illness he has been afflicted with. We are still praying for a remission.”
That, sadly, did not come.
A FINAL HEALTH BATTLE, OF SEVERAL
America’s Anchorman, the Doctor of Democracy, with talent on loan from God.
For more than three decades, Rush Limbaugh has come to be known as the epitome of conservative American political thought – and influence. In recent months, he staunchly defended former President Donald Trump’s unproven claims that the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election results were flawed, and that he had actually won re-election. This led to Limbaugh’s voluntary deactivation of his Twitter account on January 7, 2021; his last Tweet was on December 17.
On December 23, Limbaugh took to the microphone to provide an update on his health to listeners.
“I’ve had a year now to reflect on the things that really matter, a year to reflect on the things that are completely relevant and important to me,” he said. “And all of you are in that large conglomeration of people and things that are very important to me.”
On February 3, 2020, Limbaugh told his audience, and the world, that he has been diagnosed with “advanced lung cancer.” At the time, he noted it was a struggle for him to make the revelation, after first telling his staff earlier in the day that Monday just over one year ago, when COVID-19 was still largely an Asian pandemic.
The diagnosis, Limbaugh said, was confirmed by two medical institutions, on January 20, 2020. He added that he first believed something was wrong on his birthday weekend of 2020. “I thought about not telling anybody,” Limbaugh admitted. “I thought about trying to do this without anybody knowing, ’cause I don’t like making things about me. But, there are days where I am not going to be able to be here.”
In his Dec. 23, 2020, update, Limbaugh told listeners, “I wasn’t expected to make it to October and then to November and then to December — and yet here I am. Today I’ve got some problems, but I’m feeling pretty good today. God’s with me today. God knows how important this program is to me today, and I’m feeling natural in terms of energy, normal in terms of energy, and I’m feeling entirely capable of doing it today.”
The lung cancer disclosure came 18 1/2 years after otolaryngologists Antonio De la Cruz and Jennifer Derebery discussed a diagnosis and treatment for hearing loss incurred by Limbaugh. As of October 2001, Limbaugh suffered from autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED), a disease that could include sudden hearing loss. He was able to regain much of his hearing with the help of a cochlear implant. It then became known that he had become addicted to Vicodin, resulting in a five-week leave of absence from his daily radio program in order to enter a rehabilitation program. Severe back pain led Limbaugh to begin using the drug.
A THREE RIVERS SPARK, AND FLAME-OUT
As “Jeff Christie,” Limbaugh began his career in radio, first at McKeesport, Pa.-based WIXZ and then at a bigger Top 40 station in Western Pennsylvania, KQV-AM 1410, then-owned by ABC. He would enjoy two stints at KQV in the early 1970s, and in 1974 hosted the night shift as the station transitioned from ABC ownership to Taft Broadcasting. They weren’t fond of Mr. Limbaugh’s persona as Mr. Christie, and by the end of the year he was gone; RBR+TVBR founder Jim Carnegie, under pressure from Taft’s C-Suite, carried out the edict as KQV’s Program Director. Then-General Manager John Gibbs suggested he hang up the headphones and take a radio sales position.
Dejected and with only one job offer, which he declined, Limbaugh went home. Over the next five years, he’d established a home in Kansas City – but not a successful radio career, with stints at KUDL and the former KFIX. In 1979, Limbaugh left the radio business altogether, taking a position with the Kansas City Royals just before their 1980 World Series season. While with the American League baseball club, he’d travel to Europe and Asia. It provided a foundation for his conservative views which would later permeate his Talk radio career.
That began in late 1983, when KMBZ-AM in Kansas City hired Limbaugh to be Limbaugh, with the “Jeff Christie” name gone for good. KMBZ fired Limbaugh. However, he soon accepted a job offer that would fundamentally change his career – and Talk Radio. On Oct. 14, 1984, Limbaugh replaced acerbic talk show host Morton Downey Jr. at KFBK-AM 1530 in Sacramento.
By 1988, fueled by the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, Limbaugh’s show was attracting a large audience. It also gained the attention of Ed McLaughlin, the President of ABC Radio.
After 14 years, Limbaugh was rehired by ABC. Talking up Elton John and Blue Swede records was no longer necessary. Yet, the news was hardly headline-making. In the July 2, 1988, edition of Billboard, one line in the “Vox Jox” column stated the following: Rush Limbaugh comes to middays at Talk WABC New York from KFBK Sacramento, Calif., where he succeeded Morton Downey Jr.
While that may have been a minor hire in the view of columnists Sean Ross and Yvonne Olson nearly 33 years ago, Limbaugh’s presence on WABC was just the start of a career revival and explosion. Thanks to syndication, Limbaugh’s program gained a national audience. It also shepherded the transition of Talk radio from largely local programming to shows heard from coast to coast outside of overnights, where the late Larry King revived his career.
By the Persian Gulf War some 30 years ago, Limbaugh’s show was heard on some 650 radio stations.
By 1994, Limbaugh’s program greatly influenced the American electorate by ushering in the Congressional “Republican revolution,” led on Capitol Hill by Newt Gingrich.
The Rush Limbaugh Show would continue to have great influence over U.S. politics and talk radio for the next 27 years, even after his early 2014 move from WABC-AM to rival WOR-AM, which iHeartMedia predecessor Clear Channel agreed to acquire from Buckley Broadcasting in August 2012.
RUSH THE LIFE SAVER
In early February 2020, just days after disclosing his lung cancer diagnosis, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address by President Trump in the House Chamber.
While those who may have disagreed with Limbaugh’s political views and sphere of influence likely scoffed at the honor, Limbaugh for several years used the power of his nationally syndicated radio program to save lives. He and his program are avid supporters of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Thanks to Limbaugh, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised in support of blood cancer cures, research and treatment through listener-driven telethons.
This will be part of Limbaugh’s legacy, cemented through a commitment to expressing his beliefs, challenging those in Washington, D.C., he didn’t agree with, and revolutionizing commercial spoken word radio for a generation.