The theme of a Friday session at Talk Show Boot Camp was “What’s Next?” But as talk radio grapples with who will fill the enormous shoes left by the death of Rush Limbaugh, it could have been “Who’s Next?” With that question top of mind, Premiere Networks President Julie Talbot tackled the pressing issue head-on at the start of the panel.
The guessing game of who ultimately succeeds Limbaugh is the wrong approach, Talbot suggested. “He’s irreplaceable,” she said. Premiere took the year that followed his Feb. 3, 2020 disclosure of his advanced lung cancer diagnosis to strategize, talk with listeners and think through the best course of action. “What we know is listeners don’t want another host right now,” Talbot said. “They want the comfort of Rush’s voice.”
Drawing on 30 years of archived – and now digitized – Limbaugh audio, the network’s plan is to continue using guest hosts, or guides as Talbot calls them, “to guide us through Rush’s words on the relevant topics.”
Talbot said she gets it that everyone wants to know who’s next. “It’s a whole lot easier to do a radio show with a live personality than it is to continually create something that millions of listeners want in an entertaining way,” she told TSBC attendees. “For right now, and for the foreseeable future, we are going to continue with our guides, we’re going to continue to accommodate what the listeners are wanting, to ensure that advertisers and affiliates are taken care of.”
Nearly fourteen months ago, when news of Limbaugh’s terminal illness broke, Premiere began to get “bombarded” with tapes and pitches. That gave them time to check out a lot of audio and work with some talent that wouldn’t have otherwise been considered, Talbot explained. “It’s been an exciting time to see what we can develop over that time. If and when the time comes that Rush’s voice will not be the predominant voice on ‘The Rush Limbaugh Show,’ then we’ll certainly have lots of options,” she said.
Which Voices Emerge?
No one ever really replaced Paul Harvey or Howard Stern on radio and Kraig Kitchin said that whoever follows Rush will face an enormous challenge. A successor in the noon-3pm slot “will be compared to Rush’s entertainment value and proposition, the kind of person that he was and the kind of warmth and engagement that he brought to the fold,” he said.
Kitchin, President of talent management firm Sound Mind, had a decades-long business and personal relationship with Limbaugh dating back to when he ran Premiere Networks. The current plan of marrying the best of Rush to current topics will eventually give way to “hearing more of the guides’ voice than Rush’s voice when it’s appropriate,” he said. “And eventually you’ll start to hear some other voices of individuals who will be a part of the noon-to-three conversation in the future.”
“You’ll start to see the free market economy in the radio industry take place,” Kitchin added. That’s already begun, he said, noting how some syndicators are moving other personalities into the noon-3pm slot of their lineups.
“No one is really going to replace him” but there will be audience beneficiaries, Kitchin said, such as Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro, Charlie Kirk, Buck Sexton, Dan Bongino and others. “Eventually that audience will disperse a little until there’s a reason and a clear indication from the industry of what’s next.” Kitchin predicted it will take three to five years to see “which voices emerge as being a really good companion in the next era of talk radio.”
The panel, moderated by consultant Gabe Hobs, also offered a “what’s next” perspective from those not directly associated with Limbaugh. Chris Oliviero, Market Manager for Entercom New York, tossed out a concept to consider. While syndicated conservative talk radio has typically relied on a solo host to carry the weight, sports radio and local talk radio often use a pair of co-hosts. “The two-person show is something that should be on the table. It removes the over-reliance on callers,” he said, at a time when a big chunk of the audience doesn’t view interaction as waiting on hold to talk on the phone.
Robin Bertolucci, PD at iHeartMedia news/talk KFI (640) and talk KEIB (1150) Los Angeles, also believes it’s time to try something new. “Anything we can do to break the formula and change the sound is a gift to the next person because ultimately nobody wants to be the quarterback that follows John Elway or Joe Montana,” she said. “The more we can break the mold and avoid the comparison – that’s a good thing.”
Drew Anderssen, PD at Cox Media Group news/talk WSB-AM & FM (750, 95.5) Atlanta, agreed no one person will replace the legendary host. There continues to be an outpouring of emotion from regular Rush listeners who tuned to the show on WSB, he noted.
Some stations may use the opportunity to put a local host in the slot at a time when Anderssen and others on the panel said they’re receiving lots of overtures from talent eager to host a show. “There is a lot of talent out there and that for us as an industry is a really great thing to see,” he said. “It’s energizing.”