Rush Limbaugh’s short-lived TV show was the gateway drug to Fox News

Off the air.
Off the air.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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Rush Limbaugh, the American conservative political commentator and radio personality, died today at 70 from lung cancer.

Best known for his long-running, syndicated radio show, Limbaugh became arguably the most popular name in conservative media over the course of his 30 years on the air. At the time of his death, his show, which launched in 1988, aired on more than 600 stations and reached nearly 30 million Americans per week. Limbaugh leveraged his popularity into close personal relationships with numerous Republican party leaders, including former president Donald Trump.

But it was a less-known part of his career that may have had the most far-reaching impact. In 1992, Limbaugh took his radio act to TV, hosting a 30-minute syndicated series that was a strange mix of late-night monologuing, opinion, and news. The executive producer of that show was Roger Ailes, the future co-founder and CEO of Fox News.

Limbaugh met Ailes in 1990 and said it was “like finding a soulmate.” From 1992 until 1996, Ailes produced Limbaugh’s TV show, which aired in the middle of the night. Limbaugh would often remind his audience to record episodes on VHS if they couldn’t stay up to watch it live.

The persona Ailes helped Limbaugh create on that show—something between a commentator, political strategist, news anchor, and entertainer—is exactly the kind of act you can see today on Fox News. It’s not hard to draw a straight line from Limbaugh’s TV show to talking heads like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.

Like today’s Fox News personalities, Limbaugh fancied himself as a man of the people who railed against elitist, liberal politicians and voters. But as he did that, he was flying his private jet around the country to wine and dine with powerful figures. The myth he created of himself, with the help of Ailes, is the same myth we see pushed again and again on Fox News by its biggest names.

In retrospect, Ailes may have been using Limbaugh’s TV act as a test run for Fox News, to see if the brand of conservative opinion that was working on the radio could be translated to, and expanded on, TV. In 1996, the same year the Limbaugh show ended, Ailes co-founded Fox News at the behest of the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Much of what ensued—the liberal-bashing, fear-mongering, alternative reality in which Fox’s personalities lived—was reminiscent of Ailes’s weird little Limbaugh talk show experiment.

When the show ended, Limbaugh went back to radio. Ailes later unsuccessfully tried to get Limbaugh to join Fox News in 2006. But by that point, the network already had a dozen Limbaughs of its own.