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Rush Limbaugh blame game: Are falling ad revenues his fault?

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Brian Jones/Las Vegas News Bureau/AP/File

(Read caption) Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, speaking here at a Jan. 27, 2010, Miss America news conference, drew many critics for his depiction of a college student as a 'slut' because she spoke out on Capitol Hill about the need for insurance coverage for contraceptives.

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Is Rush Limbaugh’s harsh rhetoric to blame for declining ad revenue at WABC and other big radio stations that carry his show? That’s what the CEO of the firm that owns those stations believes. In particular, Lew Dickey of Cumulus Media has said that Mr. Limbaugh’s 2012 “slut” comment about Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke cost the firm millions in lost spots last year.

In an investor conference call in March, Mr. Dickey alluded to the controversy again. The firm’s talk radio revenues have “been challenged ... due to some of the issues that happened a year ago," Dickey said, according to an account in Politico.

Limbaugh disputes this, and the whole thing may be as much about the upcoming expiration of his contract with Cumulus as it is about El Rushbo’s past behavior. But first, let’s take a trip down talk radio memory lane, shall we?

Sandra Fluke burst on the political scene as a young woman who spoke about her belief that insurance firms needed to cover contraception during a period when Washington was debating whether government should mandate that very thing. Republicans declined to allow her to testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. She later spoke publicly to Democratic panel members.

Limbaugh talked about her on his show for three days running. Among other things, he said Fluke “essentially says that she must be paid to have sex – what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute?”

Then he urged her to make public videos of her intimate acts.

“If we are going to have to pay for this, then we want something in return Ms. Fluke,” Limbaugh said late last February. “And that would be the videos of all this sex posted online so we can see what we’re getting for our money.”

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Many Democrats got angry. Some Republicans, such as Carly Fiorina, then a National Republican Senatorial Committee official, groaned that Rush’s words were incendiary and unhelpful to the GOP in an electoral sense.

The left-leaning watchdog group, Media Matters, started a boycott campaign. Within days, it claimed that 46 advertisers had quit Limbaugh’s show, including big national firms such as Sears.

OK, flash forward to today. Media Matters claims the boycott is still effective and is hurting the Cumulus Media stations that carry Limbaugh’s show. Advertisers are still fleeing Limbaugh, the group claims. Some stations are dropping him altogether.

“In some ways, the adaptation is taking place on branding and marketing grounds. When Philadelphia’s WPHT replaced Rush Limbaugh with Michael Smerconish, promotional material for Smerconish that was sent to advertisers declared that the era of ‘angry is over,’ ” wrote Angelo Carusone of Media Matters in an update on the situation this March.

But Rush Limbaugh remains the top-rated talk radio host in America. And he may be getting tired of being blamed for Cumulus Media’s problems.

That’s his side’s take on the controversy, anyway. A source close to Limbaugh told Politico that the host is considering ending his affiliation with the firm at the end of the year.

“Dickey’s talk stations underperform talk stations owned by other operators in generating revenue by a substantial margin,” the source told Politico’s Dylan Byers.

It’s possible the dispute is really about which flagship station will carry Limbaugh in New York City.

Right now, he’s on Cumulus Media’s WABC. But that contract expires at the end of 2013. And the biggest radio ownership group in the country, Clear Channel, recently bought a rival station, cross-town WOR.

“Some industry watchers expect [Limbaugh’s] program will move to WOR in 2014,” wrote the trade publication Talkers on Monday.

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