TAMPA -- Rush Limbaugh leaves behind memories and controversy in the Tampa Bay area, where he was a fixture on WFLA Radio beginning in September, 1989 -- about a year after he entered national syndication.
Limbaugh arrived as the station had just gone through the death of Dick Norman and the departure of Bob Lassiter for Chicago. The station was rebuilding with afternoon host Lionel, now the force behind lionelmedia.com and a guest contributor to AM Tampa Bay.
"We had never seen anything like (Rush) before...ever," Lionel said. "It blew us away. And we couldn't figure out at first... and I say this with all candor... what is he?"
They began to learn what Limbaugh was. Restaurants set up "Rush rooms" so people could listen to the show at lunch. The "Rush to Excellence" tour filled arenas across the country as people paid to see their favorite radio personality in person. With the exception of events such as the "Battle of the Talk Show Hosts," it was unheard of for a radio host to be a box-office star.
There had been talk radio before Rush. So what made him such a gamechanger? Mark Larsen, who occupied the 9 a.m. to noon slot on WFLA during the Nineties, says the one word that differentiated Limbaugh from what came before was "entertainment." Old school talk show hosts, including conservative hosts, "seemed staid and very proper... Rush came in and did funny stuff... homeless updates and gay updates... this was before all the PC stuff... so the stuff we got away with on talk radio was beyond fun," Larsen said. "We didn't have social media... we didn't have to worry about... boycotts or cancellations."
Larsen fully credits Limbaugh with what he says were the coattails that enabled him to ride through a two-decade run in talk radio. He also believes their shared experience as nighttime jocks in Seventies Top 40 radio gave them a necessary focus. "We were both high powered nighttime DJs... 100 thousand miles an hour, yakking it up, timing was key. We had that pacing and rhythm and brought that to talk radio."
Lionel says Limbaugh's success inspired a host of imitators, who didn't fully understand the reasons for his success. "Whatever that magic was, he had it, and nobody else had it."
One specifically local controversy was Limbaugh's role reading commercial copy for Florida orange juice in 1993-94. The National Organization for Women, the NAACP and LGBTQ groups threatened a boycott. NOW even staged a protest outside WFLA's studios, as some counterprotesters showed up as well. The Florida Citrus Commission eventually ended the contract.
When Limbaugh brought his Rush to Excellence tour to Tampa, he visited the WFLA studios and made an appearance on Larsen's show. He revealed something surprising about the talk radio giant. "Rush came in to the station and we were all able to sit and shoot the breeze... and Rush was so quiet. We expected him to be running the room, and he was just the opposite. Sitting there, sipping a Snapple. being totally quiet."
Photo Credit: WFLA/Shared via Mark Larsen --
REAR, L to R: Freddie Mertz, Al Gardner, Lionel, Jay Marvin, Jack Harris.
FRONT L to R: Tedd Webb, Rush, Mark Larsen