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Rush Limbaugh vs. Cumulus Media: Who's dumping whom?
Politico reports that America's No. 2 radio network is dropping Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. But there may well be more to this story.
 
Rush Limbaugh salutes as he is introduced as a judge before a preliminary competition for the 2010 Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas.
Rush Limbaugh salutes as he is introduced as a judge before a preliminary competition for the 2010 Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Rush Limbaugh and Cumulus Media, the company that distributes the influential conservative's talk-radio show in some 40 major markets, are headed for divorce, says Dylan Byers at Politico.

Citing "an industry source," Byers says that Cumulus — the No. 2 radio network in the U.S., behind Clear Channel — won't renew either the contract of Limbaugh or fellow conservative talker Sean Hannity at the end of the year. This is "a major shakeup for the radio industry," Byers adds, and it's hard to argue with that. Limbaugh and Hannity have the biggest and second-biggest talk radio shows, respectively, in the country. By a lot.

That also makes Limbaugh and Hannity very expensive, and this reported move by Cumulus to dump the two stars is about money. The two radio talkers are represented by Premiere Networks, a Clear Channel division, and Premiere reportedly wants more money than Cumulus thinks Limbaugh and Hannity are worth. Cumulus declined to comment on the rumors.

Limbaugh and Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey have been effectively negotiating in public since May, when Limbaugh threatened to leave Cumulus because Dickey had blamed Limbaugh's 2012 on-air insults of Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke for driving advertisers away and costing Cumulus millions of dollars. Now, Limbaugh critics are calling this apparent breakdown in negotiations a win for the post-Fluke boycott.

Eric Boehlert at Media Matters, one of the boycott's lead proponents, is practically giddy:

"The boycotters did it," agrees Jason Easley at Politicus USA. They got Cumulus to dump not only Limbaugh, but also Hannity. "Without the public pressure, bad publicity, and shame that the boycott brought on to his advertisers, Rush Limbaugh and Cumulus would probably still have a happy marriage."

If Politico's report is true, "Limbaugh's contentious and seemingly inevitable divorce from Cumulus Media and WABC has moved another step closer to reality," says David Hinckley at the New York Daily News. But that doesn't mean that Cumulus is dumping Limbaugh. "New York radio observers have been expecting for the past year that Limbaugh and probably Hannity would leave WABC, which is owned by Cumulus, for rival WOR," recently purchased by Clear Channel.

That's an important distinction, says Hinckley. And if Limbaugh goes to Clear Channel, it's not like he'll be off the airwaves. His legions of fans would just have to change the presets on their radios.

And Cumulus wouldn't drop conservative talk radio altogether — it would just switch personalities, says Byers. In recent weeks, "Cumulus has been quietly reaching out to radio talent agents and political insiders about new local and regional station hosts to fill some of the airtime that will be left vacant by Limbaugh and Hannity," he says. "Cumulus is also expected to move some of its existing talent — which includes Mike Huckabee, Mark Levin, and Michael Savage — into one of the slots."

"Cumulus has already tried to position Huckabee as a 'safe' alternative to Limbaugh," says Adam Martin at New York: "A conservative commentator who wouldn't call people 'sluts' on air." Huckabee doesn't have a huge following, according to Talkers magazine's most recent analysis, but Savage and Levin do.

Readers should take Politico's entire report with a healthy grain of salt, says Radio Ink. "A story like this always seems to pop up around the quarterly earnings call," and it's most likely a negotiating tactic as Cumulus and Premier haggle over a price. For what it's worth, "a source tells Radio Ink nothing has been decided and a deal could even be worked out in the next month or so."

Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. But my guess is that Limbaugh and Hannity have the upper hand. If Premiere asks too high a price from Cumulus, Clear Channel can't really then pay Limbaugh and Hannity less than its subsidiary was demanding. But even if neither Clear Channel nor Cumulus are willing to pay up, Limbaugh has a large fan base that would follow him to satellite radio or the internet. Glenn Beck seems to be making a tidy sum on his own.

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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