As I frequently mention on the air, I was a big fan of the late Doug Hoerth and a heavy listener of WTAE (1250) when it was in its all-talk heyday — a lineup that included, at one point, O’Brien & Garry, Lynn Cullen, Hoerth, Ann Devlin, Myron Cope, Phil Musick and Larry King overnights. It was a murderer’s row of Pittsburgh talk radio.
When I was in high school, I mostly got to listen to Hoerth in the summertime and on weekends, so I vividly remember how disappointed I was in 1990 when his “infamous Saturday show” (a freewheeling panel discussion/trivia contest hosted by Hoerth and his buddies) was shortened so that WTAE could pick up repeats of a new syndicated show by someone named Rush Limbaugh.
My radios were more or less rusted to 1250 AM at that point, so I gave Limbaugh a try. (I was also fairly conservative in those days — a Catholic school kid, a Boy Scout patrol leader and an altar boy on Sunday mornings.)
But after listening to a few episodes of Limbaugh, I was in disbelief. It was like shortwave radio from another galaxy.
I remember thinking, “What is this crap? Does this guy actually believe the crazy stuff he’s saying?”
And also: “Who is going to listen to this?”
At the end of 1990, WTAE passed on a chance to carry Limbaugh’s show live Monday through Friday, and KDKA (1020) picked it up instead.
As it turned out, a lot of people were eager to hear “this crap.” Pretty soon restaurants were opening “Rush Rooms,” where fans could sit and listen to his show as a group and cackle as Limbaugh railed against “feminazis.”
It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong and definitely won’t be the last time. But as Doug himself often was fond of paraphrasing Mencken: “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
And when Limbaugh went onto KDKA, he clobbered WTAE and Hoerth’s show.
I remember radio people telling me how “clever” and “funny” Limbaugh was when he did things like the “homeless people update” and played “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry, or the “AIDS update,” when he would read stories about celebrities who had contracted HIV and play the song “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.”
He was always a monster.
Oh, his tone was definitely “lighter” in his early years … back when he first went national, he sounded more sarcastic and mocking than bitter — he was a bad boy, playing pranks, throwing stink bombs and saying, “oh, ain’t I a trouble-maker?”
As time went on, I think his press clippings got to his head. He became more serious and didn’t try to be funny any more.
It seemed to start around the time David Letterman had Limbaugh as a guest and asked him, “Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and just think to yourself, ‘I am just full of hot gas?’”
You could tell from his reaction that Limbaugh didn’t find it humorous when someone poked fun at him — not one bit.
I went back today to see what Pittsburgh newspapers wrote about Limbaugh’s arrival on the local airwaves in 1990. The Pittsburgh Press’ Robert Bianco called Limbaugh “shallow and simplistic … self-satisfied repulsiveness … thoughtlessly monolithic.”
Bianco thought Limbaugh’s appeal would be short-lived, like Morton Downey Jr.’s TV talk show, which had recently crashed and burned. Bianco, like me, was wrong.
In the Post-Gazette, Ron Weiskind was more on target. He understood Limbaugh’s appeal. Although Weiskind found Limbaugh “smug, pushy, bombastic and sometimes nasty … I have also heard him conduct intelligent discussions.”
But, he concluded, Limbaugh’s success was “more due to his combativeness than any deep thinking.”
That was certainly the lesson that every radio program director in America also took away: You can attract more listeners being rude than you can with deep thinking.
Still, when Limbaugh announced he had cancer, I thought it was in poor taste to make jokes about it.
But honestly? He really leaned into being a jerk during his last few years. It’s not like he had an epiphany and said, “I should be nicer to people so they’ll say nice things about me after I die.”
In fact, he reveled in his nastiness. And perhaps Limbaugh’s worst legacy is that within a few years of his national debut, every radio station in America was recruiting Rush Limbaugh wanna-bes, each trying to be even nastier than the original, in order to stand out.
Soon, almost every radio talk show host was imitating Limbaugh by “punching down.” The dial was filled with angry, shouting white men, mocking anyone with less power than them, including women, Black people, non-Christians, immigrants, high school and college students, and the handicapped — just like Rush.
Those who didn’t get with the new way of doing talk radio (like the aforementioned Devlin and Musick) found themselves unemployed, or relegated (like Cullen) to the fringes.
So here we are in 2021. Talk radio is a cesspool and our political discourse is completely poisonous. It’s no longer enough for Republicans to disagree with Democrats, or conservatives to disagree with liberals — Democrats and liberals must be called lunatics, communists, Nazis, moonbats, pedophiles, Satanists and whatever other insults are handy.
That’s what Rush Limbaugh did, after all — fling insults and demonize his opponents — with the willing support of the billion-dollar companies that were gobbling up local radio stations in the 1990s.
One thing I forgot until today was that when KDKA picked up Rush Limbaugh, they fired Trish Beatty from her midday music and talk show.
Limbaugh’s arrival at 1020 AM was the beginning of the end of KDKA Radio as “Some Place Special” and “Group Wonderful.” The home of John Cigna and Pirates games and snow-day school closings and the community’s conversation was on its way to becoming just another bottomless sewer of toxic talk.
When Limbaugh arrived in syndication, AM radio — sometimes derided as “antique modulation” — was dying. Music was moving to the higher-fidelity FM band and AM stations were struggling to find something to replace it.
Limbaugh and his imitators helped revive the band, at least for a little while, so the broadcasting trade websites are full of stories today about Limbaugh’s “enormous talent” that helped save AM radio from extinction.
Yes, he did have considerable talent (“on loan from God,” as he would say).
And what did he use it for? To heap abuse on anyone with whom he personally happened to disagree — but in fairness, he also did make a lot of money for large, sleazy media conglomerates, so I’ll give him that much credit.
A few years ago, someone seriously asked me: Since you’re from McKeesport, Jay, and Rush Limbaugh started his radio career in McKeesport, have you ever tried writing to him? Maybe you could ask him what he remembered from his days on WIXZ (1360) and later on KQV (1410)?
I said: Nope. First, there was not the tiniest possibility that Limbaugh would have answered a shmuck like me — he rarely gave interviews to local press, let alone part-time weekend oldies DJs.
But even if he’d deigned to talk to me, frankly, I had not the slightest interest in what Rush Limbaugh thought about McKeesport, Pittsburgh — or anything else.