By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 7, 2009
How many people actually listen to Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk titan White House officials have spent the past week characterizing as "the head of the Republican Party"?
According to what Limbaugh delights in calling "the drive-by media," the number varies wildly. Is it 30 million (Pat Buchanan on MSNBC), 20 million (Time magazine, ABC News), 19 million (Fox News), 14 million (CNN), or "14.2 million to about 25 million" (The Washington Post)?
Limbaugh is widely acknowledged to be the most popular talk-radio host, as evidenced by the record $400 million, eight-year contract he signed with his syndicator last July. But estimates of Limbaugh's nationwide (and overseas) audience are exercises in guesswork, slippery methodology and suspect data. Limbaugh himself has muddied the water with the claim that he reaches 20 million people a week, although there's no independent support for that figure.
Arbitron, the radio industry's dominant audience-measurement company, has never publicly released a national estimate for Limbaugh, and it says, in effect, that the job is too complicated, expensive and time-consuming to bother with.
The difficulty comes from the vast patchwork that is Limbaugh's radio empire. His three-hour daily program is carried on more than 600 domestic stations, but these stations don't all carry the show at the same time or even for the same duration. Most air all three hours of Limbaugh's broadcast each weekday, but some carry only two hours. Arbitron has never attempted to aggregate all of this audience data for this many stations and times. "There is no economic motivation for any objective third party to do that kind of analysis," says Thom Mocarsky, an Arbitron spokesman.
And there are no ratings at all for a constituency of Limbaugh listeners: U.S. military personnel stationed overseas. Limbaugh's program is carried to these listeners on about 400 stations of varying audience sizes via the Armed Forces Radio Network, which Arbitron doesn't monitor.
The ratings service can say with some precision how large Limbaugh's audience is in a particular city and at a particular time. In the Washington region, for example, Limbaugh's program -- carried from noon to 3 p.m. on WMAL (630 AM) -- attracted an average of 167,700 unique listeners per week during January. Limbaugh has never been a huge draw in Washington; his show ranked 14th overall during January, far behind ratings leaders WTOP-FM (567,500 weekly listeners), soft-rock station WASH-FM (526,300) and Top-40 station WIHT-FM (349,300).
Premiere Radio Networks, Limbaugh's national syndicator, estimated last year that 3.59 million people were in Limbaugh's audience during an average quarter-hour of his program, based on a review of Arbitron's piecemeal data about hundreds of stations.
Because people typically tune in and tune out of stations, however, that number doesn't reflect how many individuals cumulatively listened at some point during the week. What's more, Premiere's figure is based on data from the first three months of 2008, a virtual lifetime ago in the fast-moving radio business.
Whatever the number, not all of Limbaugh's listeners are the ardent ideological followers known as "Dittoheads." According to a survey released last month by the Pew Research Center, 80 percent of his audience identified themselves as "conservative."
Figuring out the size of Limbaugh's flock "is an art, not a science," says Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers magazine, a trade journal about the talk-radio field. "It's very hard to come up with an exact answer. It really reveals the embarrassing state of radio ratings."
Harrison's own calculation -- that Limbaugh typically attracts about 14.25 million listeners weekly -- is based on Arbitron figures from about 30 cities and spot checks of a similar number of stations. Harrison stands by his guess even though Limbaugh's program is heard on more than 600 stations across the country. "Once you get below the big markets, [the audience] doesn't add up to critical mass," he said.
Harrison said his estimate of a big spike in Limbaugh's audience this week -- some 25 million, a figure quoted in The Post -- was also based on his discussions with station program directors around the country. Although there's no actual survey data to support such a figure, Harrison said "it's what we're hearing, based on the e-mails, the calls, all the buzz this controversy is generating. We put a little bit of our interpretation on it, added it all up, and that puts you in the ballpark."
No matter the exact figure, Harrison says Limbaugh's weekly audience eclipses all other nationally syndicated personalities, including conservatives Sean Hannity (13.25 million), Michael Savage (8.25 million) and Laura Ingraham (5.5 million), according to the magazine's "rough projections."