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Rush v. Howard: How Limbaugh Got the Best of the Reformed Shock Jock

Two very different broadcasters. Two wildly different approaches to free speech

Social media lit up after news broke of Rush Limbaugh’s death following a year-long fight with lung cancer, and understandably so.

Limbaugh, 70, revolutionized talk radio. His name became synonymous with the format, blazing a trail followed by a new generation of conservative talkers.

  • Ben Shapiro
  • Mike Gallagher
  • Sean Hannity
  • Hugh Hewitt
  • Glenn Beck

Liberals raged against him for decades, trying to kick him off the air in any way possible.

Trump reacts to Rush Limbaugh's death on Fox News: 'He is a legend'

Many used Limbaugh’s death as a chance to digitally dance on his grave. His passing also led some to compare his legacy to that of fellow radio titan Howard Stern.

The two couldn’t be more different, of course. Limbaugh’s politically-charged show covered the daily headlines from a sophisticated, right-of-center view. Stern’s shtick focuses on the funny, led by his gaggle of colleagues, guests and hangers on.

Comparing the two seems silly beyond one obvious point. They’re both radio institutions who dominated their fields like no other before … or since.

Yet there’s more about their differences that demands our attention.

RELATED: Sorry, Howard, You Haven’t Changed at All

Limbaugh’s approach to broadcasting didn’t shift in any drastic way over time. His weekday show served up monologues, phone calls and, for a spell, satirical sketches. Politicians came and went, but Limbaugh viewed them from an unbending conservative lens.

The syndicated talker did modulate his tone in recent years, though. He embraced Donald Trump, the most unorthodox politician to ever call the GOP home. Limbaugh excused Trump’s less than doctrinaire conservative principles, sensing his populist pluck was just what the nation, and the Republicans. needed. That, and Trump’s willingness to punch back twice as hard when attacked, earned him the talker’s trust.

In many ways Limbaugh was right.

Stern, by comparison, is very different than the young broadcaster with the Mt. Rushmore-sized chip on his shoulder. He’s an institution now, and he knows it. The old battles with fellow radio personalities gave way to more insider chats with fawning guests.

Stern’s bare-knuckled humor has softened over the years, too, something he credits to years of therapy. His old sparring partners, like Rosie O’Donnell, are now friends, at least on air.

Howard Stern Calls Rosie O'Donnell One of His "Best Guests" | The View

One senses that the off-mic Stern is part of the Hollywood system, rubbing elbows with some of the folks he once relentlessly attacked over the years.

Just this week he sang Britney Spears’ praises after years of relentlessly mocking her.

Limbaugh and Stern embraced very different work ethics following their breakout success. Limbaugh took the usual holiday breaks, of course, but he maintained a regimen not unlike his early radio days. Even after being diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer Limbaugh kept on working. He’d take random days off as his health deteriorated, but listeners sensed a man who prayed he was strong enough to broadcast the very next day.

RELATED: Chrissie Hynde: My Dad Loved Rush Limbaugh

Limbaugh’s recent absence from his “EIB” studio, along with an ominous note from longtime producer Bo Snerdley (AKA James Golden), had fans anticipating the worst.

They knew him well.

Compare that to Stern, who now works a three-day week with extended vacations scattered across the calendar. That limited schedule began a decade ago, when Stern was still in his 50s (he’s 67 now and shares a birthday with Limbaugh -- Jan. 12).

The hunger, the fire, never went out of Limbaugh. He remained devoted to the conservative cause and his fan base. He gave it his all, whether battling hearing loss or fighting through chemotherapy to shape the news narrative.

That same fire feels missing from Stern.

Instead, Stern now cuddles up to the media, the progressive Left and the conga line of stars who enter his studio. That was never more true than when he went after President Donald Trump last year. The two were on-air chums for decades, but Stern followed the progressive blueprint and savaged Trump on a number of issues.

The old Stern might have ignored media narratives to speak larger truths about the Trump phenomena, for better and worse.

Not Howard 2.0.

His Trump attacks earned him glowing press coverage, and he doubled down as a result. Stern’s similar embrace of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a leader many called out for his disgraceful pandemic leadership, generated more media kudos.

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The old Stern would have looked around his beloved New York, seen the destruction created by Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and BLM protests, and shouted his disgust at us five days a week.

Not Howard 2.0.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Limbaugh and Stern in recent years came with Cancel Culture and serial attacks on free speech. Limbaugh rightly saw the growing threat to the First Amendment, and the country’s right to free expression, as part of progressive overreach on steroids.

After all, Limbaugh survived wave after wave of Cancel Culture attacks long before the term became part of the lexicon.

Stern built his early career on his fights with the FCC. He wailed against anyone who prevented him from speaking his mind, making it part of his show’s DNA.

Remember, “Crucified by the FCC” and his 1987 free speech rally in New York City?

He finally saw a way out with satellite radio, leaving terrestrial broadcasting behind in 2004 so he could speak his mind sans corporate filters. 

Who could blame him?

Yet Stern’s voice, his wisdom, on free speech is mostly missing today. Comedians like John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, Adam Carolla and Rob Schneider are leading the charge to protect a comic’s right to say what he or she pleases.

Stern is mostly absent from his own fight.

On that front alone Limbaugh trumped Stern, a battle that will never be restarted after Limbaugh’s passing. 

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