That was Monday. By Tuesday, Sileo was gone, fired by WDAE-AM (“The Sports Animal”), where he’d worked behind the microphone for nearly 15 years. The station, owned by radio giant Clear Channel Communications, has declined to talk about Sileo’s dismissal.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the furor over Limbaugh’s denunciation of Georgetown law-school student Sandra Fluke last month, Sileo’s firing suggests to many that something has changed about the sensitivities of talk-radio stations. A medium built on pushing the limits of acceptable speech appears, once again, to be reassessing just where those limits are.
Limbaugh, the nation’s most popular talk host, is still being battered by liberal activists and others for calling Fluke “a slut” and “a prostitute” for her advocacy of mandatory insurance coverage for contraception. Dozens of advertisers have declared Limbaugh’s program a no-go zone, at least temporarily. This has left his syndicator, Clear Channel-owned Premiere Radio Networks, to fill some of the commercial breaks on his program with freebie public-service ads.
The fallout appears to have less to do with listeners’ reactions to his derogatory comments — there’s no evidence that Limbaugh’s audience has abandoned him in the past two weeks — than with advertisers’ nervousness about being associated with something “controversial,” which is precisely what political talk radio strives to be.
The medium has endured many such controversies before, of course. The influential Joe Pyne pioneered “confrontational” radio in the 1950s, and Limbaugh got his start in the mid-1980s as a replacement for Morton Downey Jr., whose shtick was insulting callers to his program.
But some in the talk business suggest things are different now.
For one thing, the Limbaugh flap has demonstrated anew how individuals and interest groups, such as the liberal Media Matters for America, can gin up and sustain outrage via social media (in Limbaugh’s case, President Obama’s consoling phone call to Fluke probably helped fan public revulsion, too). The group waged a sustained campaign targeting Glenn Beck’s advertisers that drove many off Beck’s highly rated Fox News program and ultimately ended Beck’s association with the cable network. Similar campaigns drove Don Imus and Dr. Laura Schlessinger from the air after they made inflammatory comments.
For another, some see the radio industry as uniquely vulnerable to sustained pressure. A long period of consolidation has left industry giants such as Clear Channel with a vast portfolio of stations but also deeply in debt, making them extra sensitive to anything that might disrupt their revenue (for the record, Premiere has issued a statement generally supportive of Limbaugh).