Limbaugh vs. Stern: Who's the Real Radio Star?

Two radio giants enjoyed a memorable December. One was dubbed the radio personality of the decade by Mediaweek and survived a heart scare, while the other was patting himself on the back for his historical run via his own radio program.


That says plenty about Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern, respectively, circa the end of the last decade.

The two radio stars couldn’t be any more different, despite sharing the same January 12 birthday. Limbaugh traffics almost exclusively in politics, with an occasional football recap between monologues. Stern’s show runs the gamut from lesbians to … more lesbians. Actually, that’s unfair — Stern’s shtick can be all-encompassing, and at his best he’s an insightful interviewer who wrings fresh material out of even the most jaded personalities.

Assuming one can tolerate his often crass approach to the medium.

But while Stern’s career is on the decline — he toils in a less accessible medium and has no new side projects in sight — Limbaugh’s star continues to rise. In fact, Limbaugh’s connection to American politics and culture has never been more vital. And the conservative’s terrestrial radio perch ensures he impacts the national discourse on a daily basis. The only time Stern makes headlines these days is when he talks about his possible contract extension.

More importantly, Limbaugh is still rolling up his sleeves and imploring his listeners to act, to think, to embrace conservatism. Stern seems all too eager to begin his next vacation or to cue up another radio segment applauding his genius.


On the surface, it’s impossible to directly compare the two radio personalities. Limbaugh broke big in the late ‘80s as a conservative firebrand, mixing smart political chatter with a comically inflated ego.

With talent … on loan … from Gaaahhhd, Limbaugh became the singular voice of the right, an unabashed partisan who rooted for the GOP but stuck by his conservative bona fides. His show soared during the Clinton years but also managed to hang tough during the Bush administration, baffling critics who thought he could only thrive when a Democrat called the White House home.

Stern? He revolutionized talk radio, period. He broke open the format by letting producers, engineers, and even janitors on the air with him, and he routinely talked past commercial breaks when he and his crack team were on a roll. His content innovations, from wacky “Dial-a-Date” segments to his “man on the street” quizzes, ultimately bled over to The Tonight Show and other outlets.

Each radio personality has dealt with, and overcome, adversity.

Limbaugh battled a drug addiction and bounced back after losing most of his hearing — the latter would have been a massive news story had he leaned left, not right. And Limbaugh is currently recovering from a heart incident, which had him rushed to a Hawaii hospital after he complained of chest pains.


Stern survived the end of his long marriage, a near constant source of fodder for his program, and the shift to a pay outlet like Sirius XM satellite radio.

While both remain media fixtures, only Limbaugh seems capable of impacting the national dialogue in 2010. Stern keeps talking about retirement, all the while working less and less.

Limbaugh sat behind the golden EIB microphone on the Tuesday before Christmas, delivering fresh, fierce programming. He‘s been on fire of late, assaulting the global warming movement and President Barack Obama’s health care reform with his trademark vigor. At the same time, Stern was enjoying yet another vacation, one of countless breaks he now gets during the year. And that doesn’t include the fact that he no longer works the Friday shift.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two involves their on-air principles. Stern once waged war against the likes of Chevy Chase and Rosie O’Donnell. Now, Stern is buddies with both — Chase even attended the radio star‘s second marriage to model Beth Ostrosky. Stern once slammed Bubba the Love Sponge for stealing his act. Today the two can be heard on Howard 101, with Stern routinely praising the Florida-based talker.

Frankly, it’s hard not to wish the Stern from 1988 would come back and mock his modern-day self. He’d have plenty of material.


Limbaugh still doesn’t specifically endorse candidates in primary battles — a governing philosophy that’s mostly unchanged since he first hit the airwaves.

Stern doesn’t seem compelled to create groundbreaking new content. Sure, he still stokes personal feuds, like his current battle against Jay Leno whom he accuses of stealing his bits.

But Stern typically lets his secondary players, from Artie Lange to audio clowns Richard Christy and Sal Governale, whip up the best new bits.

Meanwhile, Limbaugh says “bring it on” to his enemies, mocking the media which routinely takes him out of context. He even turns charges of racism on their ear, cranking out blistering bits like the song “Barack the Magic Negro” without fear and daring to discuss racial issues that could put lesser talents in hot water.

Radio still wouldn’t be the same without Stern or Limbaugh. But only Limbaugh remains a game-changing voice in this new decade.


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