Rush Limbaugh, the longstanding undisputed king of conservative talk radio who's been dogged by controversy recently, is about to face some more heat. Not from the left, but this time from the right.
On Monday, former Arkansas governor and one-time Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee will launch a three-hour radio program on almost 200 stations across the country, going voice-to-voice with Limbaugh in the noon-to-3 p.m. time slot, Monday through Friday.
Cumulus Media, which owns and operates the new program, is already pitching Huckabee to listeners and advertisers as the "safe alternative" to a man who has recently found himself under weeks of intense fire - not for the first time - and who some believe could be vulnerable to a challenge from someone offering a kinder, gentler conservative voice.
"Our tagline is, 'More conversation, less confrontation'," Huckabee told POLITICO. "I'm going to treat every guest with respect and civility. Nobody is going to come on and get into a shouting match with me. That's just not my style."
Making a direct comparison with Limbaugh, John Dickey, the co-COO of Cumulus Media, adds, "This is going to be safer from a commercial standpoint, and more respectful from a listener's perspective. I think that environment has been sorely lacking in talk radio."
While representatives of "The Rush Limbaugh Show," a Clear Channel property, and its syndicator, Premiere Networks, agree Huckabee will, in fact, offer a "safer" alternative, they strongly reject any suggestion that he poses a threat to Limbaugh's audience and enormous influence. In their eyes, Huckabee is just the latest in a long line of would-be competitors who have never been able to measure up.
"There is no alternative to Rush Limbaugh — he is an original," said Julie Talbott, Premiere's president of Content and Affiliate Relations. "He has maintained his success through his unique brand of talk radio [that is] compelling, thought-provoking, and strikes an emotional cord. Historically, lukewarm, 'safer' content isn't what attracts and retains audiences."
"Baseball is a more interesting game when you play it, rather than talk about it. So is radio," Limbaugh spokesperson Brian Glicklich told POLITICO. "Rush Limbaugh's box score extends back decades, right to today. We'll look forward to Huckabee's first one."
A Premiere spokesperson declined POLITICO's request to speak with Limbaugh.
Huckabee, who has never met Limbaugh, does indeed join a long list of conservative voices who have gone up against Limbaugh in the noon time slot, competing for pull among the base of the Republican party. The most well-known of those now-vanished competitors is Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly, who hosted the nationally syndicated show, "The Radio Factor," for seven years and became the second-most listened-to talk radio host on the airwaves. In 2009, O'Reilly was replaced by former Sen. Fred Thompson, who — like Huckabee — was trumpeted as an alternative to Limbaugh, but was never able to get traction. He ended the show last year.
"As Fred Thompson discovered, Rush Limbaugh completely dominates talk radio every day from noon to 3. If history is any guide, Huckabee will probably have a lot of trouble pulling away Rush's loyal listeners," one GOP consultant told POLITICO. "Rush is influential because of the size and engagement of his listeners. If he criticizes a Republican [officeholder], that office's phones will be shut down for days with angry callers. Mike Huckabee will not have that sort of audience."
Republican campaign strategist Steve Schmidt sees Huckabee's trajectory differently.
"Rush Limbaugh has been on top for so long, he's very good at what he does, and his audience listens to him. But he's a polarizing figure in the larger culture," Schmidt, a former advisor to John McCain, told POLITICO. "[Huckabee] is conservatism with a smile, which is a big difference in a party where the message is so often delivered angrily."
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