Rush Limbaugh’s Impact On Christian Radio

Apr 3rd, 2021 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

In mid-February, conservative talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh died of lung cancer; he was 70 years old.  Ross Douthat captures his importance: He “was probably the most influential figure among the men who defined conservatism after Ronald Reagan.  He was the presiding genius of a media revolution that still reverberates today—on your podcast as much as talk radio.”  But Limbaugh as a cultural phenomenon needs to be placed in a historical context: The airwaves are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which began in the 1940s. The FCC had a regulation that was called the Fairness Doctrine:  “On the publicly-owned airwaves, with editorials or opinion programs, you must give equal time at no charge to anyone who requests equal time for an opposing viewpoint.” But, in 1987, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine.  Within a year, in 1988, Rush Limbaugh was on the air with The Rush Limbaugh Show and radio stations could air his talk without having to worry about giving equal time to opposing viewpoints. “For that reason, Rush Limbaugh became the most listened-to program in radio with more than 15 million listeners and heard on more than 600 stations. Essentially, he became the father of what we call CTR or conservative talk radio, the father of what scholars now call the conservative media establishment: Fox News and all the rest, as well as what has been called the outrage industry.”

His impact on conservativism and on conservative talk radio is obvious.  However, what was his influence on Christian talk radio?  Mark Ward Sr., associate professor of communication at the University of Houston-Victoria in Victoria, in an interview with Christianity Today’s global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen, provides important background and context for understanding Limbaugh.  In a tribute to Limbaugh, one Christian leader wrote for USA Today, that “Christian talk programs in particular wouldn’t even exist today were it not for Limbaugh’s success. Christian radio would still be limited to sermons and songs. But instead, radio stations realized the benefit of capturing even a slice of Limbaugh’s audience share and offered new hosts and new voices opportunities to join a new, more democratic discussion of the issues.”  Before the consolidation of Christian radio into a few large networks, it was mostly locally owned mom-and-pop radio stations with weak signals, often AM stations in smaller unranked media markets. They operated on the basis of “a dollar for a holler”: they would sell radio airtime to anyone willing to buy it, to any preacher.  With the consolidation of the radio industry, these religious-sounding old-time radio programs could not make it. “If you didn’t have a big name as a preacher, if you didn’t have the kind of money to pay the rates demanded by the networks, if you didn’t have the kind of production values that could draw an audience, then you couldn’t get on the air.”  Two further developments enhanced the impact on Christian radio:

 

  • When Rush came on the air in 1988, there were only three major broadcast networks.  Rush Limbaugh gave conservatives what they saw as their own alternative media outlet.  Ward argues that “the real turning point was the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. This is important because as recently as the 1980s, no one broadcaster could own any more than 40 radio stations. With the passage of the Telecom Act in 1996, suddenly they eliminated any national cap on how many radio stations any one broadcaster could own. Overnight, the radio industry and Christian radio became consolidated as large media conglomerates bought up radio stations left and right.”
  • The FCC, since probably about the 1970s, certainly with the Reagan era in the 1980s, has taken a different view of what’s fair on the air.  In addition, there is the proliferation of different media:  Not just AM radio, where Christian radio began its radio ministry, but FM radio, satellite radio, cable TV, satellite TV, and now the internet and social media.  “We also have the outrage industry and networks like Salem Media Group or American Family Radio every day broadcasting very conservative political opinions with essentially unfettered access to the airwaves.” Today, with the rise of Christian radio consolidation, where it’s controlled by a few large networks, you’re able to have the same talk program broadcast nationwide at the same time to the audience, which magnifies the opportunities for the Christian right to be able to use radio to get its message out to the faithful. This is again due to the consolidation of the radio industry since the mid-1990s.

How important is Christian radio to the broader evangelical culture?  Ward provides some additional context:

  • In 2005, the Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, conducted a survey which found that more people consume electronic or print religious media in any given month than attend church.  One out of every five American adults consumes some form of religious media print or electronic daily—Christian radio and Christian TV were the two leading responses. A study was done by an ethnographer in 2014 comparing U.S. evangelical churches and Canadian evangelical churches. In Canadian evangelical churches, evangelical identity was not associated with a particular political partisan identity, whereas in the United States evangelical identity is tied with a conservative Republican partisan identity.  “She said that the reason was that unlike in Canada, the Christian right in the United States has an electronic church, has the vehicles of mass communication to get its message out to the people in the pews. If you want audience numbers that are easier on the music side with Christian contemporary music. The Christian adult contemporary radio format flirts with being one of the top 10 formats by national audience share. It’s even higher than that when it comes to audience share among females. By one measure, religious teaching talk is the third largest by the number of stations. But religious teaching talk is way down the list when it comes to national audience share.”
  • Ward also offers an astonishing perspective on the influence of Christian radio:  When you take all of the religious radio formats: teaching talk and religious music, then religion is number one by the number of stations and number one with national audience share. When you add all those up that’s more than 3000 full-power AM and FM radio stations, which is about one out of every five radio stations.  “That’s a considerable influence. The business model for commercial Christian radio has never been about selling advertising. It’s about selling program time to preachers and Christian talk programs. The reason for that is that Christian radio can’t compete for ratings. They are selling geographic coverage. After that, the radio preachers and syndicated Christian radio programs judge the effectiveness of a station by listener response and listener donations.”  Digital media is not replacing Christian radio but augmenting its reach. This is essentially a white evangelical genre. White evangelicals got into station ownership while you could still afford to do so. “But after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the only ones that were in a position to be one of those consolidators and build a big network were the white radio and TV station owners.  There were already into the medium. Consolidation has locked in white evangelical ownership of this genre we call Christian radio and Christian TV. Back in 2016, I did a study and I found that the ownership and the leadership of the major evangelical radio and TV networks were virtually all white.”
  • Ward documents another profound change in Christian media:  “One of the major changes that I have seen between then and now is that on the one hand, Christian radio is dominated by conservative evangelicals and Christian television is dominated by Pentecostals and charismatics.”  Conservative evangelicals prefer the aural qualities of radio as being more conducive to a more conversational or lecturing style of teaching and talk. On the other hand, “Pentecostals and charismatics dominate Christian television because they prefer the visual properties of television for a more performative, more experiential style of preaching, and yes, megachurch spectacle.”

What is the biggest challenge for Christian radio in the coming years? Over the last four years, much of Christian talk radio has identified rather profoundly with the Trump brand of the Republican Party.  Will this endure or has this association affected the Gospel message they also seek to proclaim?  Can you advocate for Trumpism and for Jesus at the same time?  Ward cautions:  “Some millennials won’t listen to a gospel presentation because you support a guy that is all about creating division and hatred. So why should I listen to you? That is a threat to the Christian message that is a threat to the gospel witness.”  Many Trump conservatives who also are Christians do not want to hear this caution, but it is nonetheless time to confront this.  This is what Beth Moore has been cautioning as has John Piper.  Furthermore, the silence of the Chuck Swindolls’s and the Tony Evans’s of Christian radio on this brand identification is quite telling; they do not push this brand in their preaching.  It is time to admit that perhaps many in Christian radio have gotten too dangerously close to political power, which is not about Jesus, not about the Gospel and not about the Kingdom of God.

See Morgan Lee, “Did Rush Limbaugh Reshape Christian Radio, Too?” (24 February 2021) at www.christianitytoday.com and Ross Douthat in the New York Times (23 February 2021).

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