Conservative talk radio giant Rush Limbaugh, who was once credited with reviving a then-dying AM radio medium, has passed away after a brief battle with cancer. He was 70.
Born Rush Hudson Limbaugh III in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on January 12, 1951, he was the son of Rush Hudson Limbaugh Jr. and Mildred Carolyn (née Armstrong) Limbaugh. His father was a lawyer and World War II pilot who served in the China-Burma, while his mother hailed from Searcy, Ark.
Though he came from a family of lawyers, Limbaugh chose a different path. While attending Cape Girardeau High School, he played some football and, at 16, took a job at a local radio station, where he used the name Rusty Sharpe on the air. Later he would cite Chicago DJ Larry Lujack as having influenced him and “the only person I ever copied.”
After graduating high school in 1969, Limbaugh enrolled in Southeast Missouri State University because his parents wanted him to get a college education, but he dropped out after only two semesters.
In 1971 Limbaugh, then 20, accepted a job as a disc jockey at WIXZ-AM in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, where he went by the on-air name of “Bachelor Jeff” Christie, first working afternoons and then moving to the morning drive slot.
After having his style compared to an early Don Imus by the station manager, Limbaugh was nevertheless fired from his position 18 months later over personality conflicts with the program director.
From there, Limbaugh went to KQV-AM in Pittsburgh, where he worked overnight. But in 1974, he was fired from that job as well, later recounting that the general manager told him he would never make it as an on-air personality and that he should consider radio sales instead.
The future conservative talk king rejected the only offer he received at the time — a radio gig in Wisconsin — and instead returned to Cape Girardeau to live for a time with his parents.
Less than a year later, Limbaugh landed a job with Top 40 station KUDL in Kansas City, Mo., soon moving to a weekend morning talk show format where he began to develop his conversational style. But by 1977 the station parted ways with him, so Limbaugh remained in Kansas City to take an evening show position at KFIX. But disagreements with management over style led to a short stay there.
In 1977 he married Roxy Maxine McNeely, a sales assistant at WHB in Kansas City. They were wed September 24, 1977, at the United Methodist Centennial Church in Cape Girardeau, but the marriage fell apart two years later.
Disillusioned at that point about ever having a career in radio, Limbaugh took a part-time sales job in 1979 working for the Kansas City Royals baseball team. The position would work into a full-time job as director of group sales and special events.
Limbaugh would return to radio in 1983 with KMBZ-AM in Kansas City. The same year he wed for the second time, marrying Michelle Sixta, a college student and usher at Royals Stadium. They would divorce in 1990.
The former KC Royals sales executive only stayed at KMBZ in Sacramento for a year before taking over for another soon-to-be TV legend, Morton Downey, Jr., who pioneered the so-called daytime “trash television” format.
On Oct. 14, 1984, Limbaugh — using his own name, finally — launched a program that would eventually blossom into a behemoth.
“All the other hosts were doing the same stuff, interviewing the sewage director or the latest carrot cake recipe expert for your holiday party. In three weeks there was going to be a Presidential election, and nobody was talking about it,” he told The New York Times in a 1990 interview.
What was deemed too controversial in Kansas City turned out to be just controversial enough in Sacramento. Limbaugh immediately garnered success with his conservatism and format, doubling his audience in the first year.
“Sacramento gave me everything I’d ever wanted in life,” he told the Times.
After building a big audience in Sacramento and catching the eye of Ed McLaughlin, then-president of ABC Radio, Limbaugh accepted a position at WABC-AM in New York City in July 1988. The outlet became his flagship station for many years, though Limbaugh would eventually move from New York City to West Palm Beach, Fla.
In the meantime, “The Rush Limbaugh Show” would grow to become the highest-rated, most-listened-to daily talk show in the country, spanning more than 600 stations and an estimated 20 million listeners a week. For a short time — 1992-1996 — Limbaugh tried television, premiering a half-hour syndicated television show that was produced by Roger Ailes, who would go on to become head of Fox News. But he left TV after about four years and never returned, often remarking that his first and only broadcast love was radio.
Along the way, Limbaugh became a multiple best-selling author with two titles, “The Way Things Ought to Be” (1992), and “See, I Told You So,” the following year.
Limbaugh also married again, twice. In 1994 he wed Marta Fitzgerald, a 35-year-old aerobics instructor, at the home of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who also officiated. They divorced in 2004. He then married Kathryn Rogers, a party planner from Florida.
Aside from his on-air success, Limbaugh was also an entrepreneur. His then-wife Marta helped him launch a successful necktie business, and later, in 2011, Limbaugh founded the “Two if by Tea” beverage company. In 2013, he published the first in a series of five young adult history books based on a character named “Rush Revere” who rode a time-traveling horse named “Liberty.”
Unfortunately, the talk radio king also had a history of medical problems that seems wholly unfair given his years-long struggle to break into a business he loved.
In 2001, Limbaugh announced that he was nearly deaf. Specialists at the House Ear Clinic in Los Angeles were able to successfully fit him with a cochlear implant that restored much of his hearing. In 2014 he got a bilateral implant that dramatically improved his hearing even more.
In 2003, the National Inquirer reported that Limbaugh was under investigation for obtaining the prescription drugs oxycodone and hydrocodone illegally. On October 10, 2003, he told listeners on-air he was addicted to them and that, immediately after the broadcast, he would enter treatment for 30 days. Subsequent news outlets reported that the treatment was part of a settlement with prosecutors that included a fine. The host said he became addicted to the painkillers following a botched surgery some years earlier intended to correct severe back pain.
But it was his iconic status as a champion of conservatism, his unparalleled intellect, and his ability to easily explain complex political ideology and intrigue that led him Limbaugh to the top of the talk radio industry.
In a 1992 letter, former President Ronald Reagan thanked him “for all you’re doing to promote Republican and conservative principles … [and] you have become the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country.”
In 1994, after Republicans won control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades, Limbaugh addressed the incoming members and was made an Honorary Member of the 1994 GOP Congressional Class. Incoming Rep. Barbara Cubin of Wyoming told the congenial host that because 74 percent of the nation’s newspapers had endorsed Democrats, “talk radio, with you in the lead, is what turned the tide.” He was given a plaque that said, “Rush Was Right,” and a pin that read, “Majority Maker.”
He is a five-time Marconi Radio Award winner, the industry’s highest honor, receiving the honors in 1992, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2014. He was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1993 and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame in 1998.
Limbaugh was also awarded the inaugural William F. Buckley Jr. Award for Media Excellence by the Media Research Center in 2007. He was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians on May 14, 2012; a bust of the talk host is on display at the Missouri Capitol Building in Jefferson City.
On Feb. 4, 2020, the day he announced his lung cancer, Limbaugh was a special guest of President Donald Trump, who awarded him with the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, during his State of the Union Address.
And for a guy who was once told by a radio station manager he’d never have what it takes to be successful, Limbaugh rose to become the second-highest-paid radio broadcaster in the country behind Howard Stern, earning an estimated $84 million per year.
Limbaugh is survived by his wife, Kathryn, and brother David Limbaugh, a lawyer, conservative author, and columnist.
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