The Rush Limbaugh phenomenon -- The popular radio talk show host discusses success, popularity and being outspoken

Think of him as an eruptive sonic blast issuing from New York’s WABC studios. Every weekday from noon to 3:00 p.m., conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh sits in his booth, wets his lips, leans into the mike, and unleashes to listeners across America a torrent of current-affairs trivia, right-wing commentary, and noxious insults aimed at environmentalists (”wackos”), feminists (”feminazis”), animal-rights defenders, gay activists, the homeless lobby, and even vegetarians. ”I’m hoping for a massive obliteration of Iraq” — he snaps his fingers — ”like that,” he said on his Jan. 18 show. Limbaugh, who claims to work with ”half my brain tied behind my back, to make it fair,” calls his brand of radio ”my arrogance thing.” His goal: universal recognition that he has the best mouth in the business. ”There’s a lot of noise out there,” he says. ”I just want to rise above it.”

That he has. In only 21/2 years, the garrulous 320-pound gabster has become the most-listened-to talk show host on radio. His syndicated broadcast is heard daily by 1.3 million people, nearly twice as many as hear No. 2, Talknet’s advice guru Bruce Williams. ”What makes me so popular is that I do what the liberals don’t do,” Limbaugh theorizes. ”They don’t make people feel good about their country — they don’t have fun.”

In the course of becoming an on-air hit, Limbaugh, 40, has attained one other remarkable achievement: He has made himself perhaps the biggest merchandising phenomenon in radio history. There’s the Rush to Excellence tour, weekend appearances around the country, at $15,000 to $20,000 per, at which he sells Rush T-shirts, mugs, and caps; there’s the Rush to Excellence video ($24.95), and there’s the Rush to Excellence Caribbean cruise, a floating forum for like-minded listeners. His total take in 1990 from Rushing around: about $750,000.

Despite their similar politics and pomposity, Limbaugh is not just this year’s Morton Downey Jr. He is a consummate politicized comedian — a cross between George Bush with a sense of humor and Jackie Mason with a right-wing political agenda. A master of issue-driven drama and theatrics, Limbaugh tends to punctuate his points on the air with exaggerated sighs, croaks, and groans. His charisma, self-promotion, and flamboyant rhetoric demand and get attention from fans — and critics, like broadcast peer Sally Jessy Raphaël. Says Raphael: ”I think [his act] is a divisive piece of broadcasting that pulls people apart at a time when they need to be brought together.”

Unlike other radio talkies, the Rush Limbaugh Show has no guests. It’s just Rush, Rush, and more Rush, with a few phone calls thrown in. Limbaugh says talking to experts would just ”obscure” the issues. Actually, they might require him to address the issues. Rather than hosting serious discussions, Limbaugh broadcasts quickie ”informational updates” and conservative-themed routines with bizarre sound effects. In one controversial bit, known as the ”caller abortion,” he sucked callers off the air with the background noise of a vacuum cleaner. ”I like to illustrate the absurd by being absurd,” Limbaugh says.

Leaders of the far right complain that Limbaugh isn’t truly committed to their causes. The host is something of a late-blooming conservative; raised in a right-wing household, Limbaugh didn’t begin his formal political education until 1983, when he started reading pop conservative icons William F. Buckley Jr. and George Will. On a recent show, when a neoconservative listener called to ask him his opinion of gun control, the host begged off. ”Everything is going along just fine,” Limbaugh said. ”So why don’t you let me steer the show? I can finish my own sentences.”

Off the air, Limbaugh sees to it that his surroundings bolster his inflated self-image. On the wall of his newspaper-strewn office is a photo of Limbaugh with Oliver North, and his door has a sign for a bogus group called the ”Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.” The ego is no act: Limbaugh goes ballistic when he’s compared with other talk radio personalities. ”Talk radio is perceived as being hosted by a bunch of irresponsible, uneducated, screaming loudmouths and insult jockeys,” he says. ”I want people to respect what I do.”

Limbaugh has a special yen to be liked by the establishment, which comes from years spent laboring outside it. ”I had never experienced a success track,” he says softly, in a rare understatement. In 1971, 20-year-old Rush Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University to take up a career as a Top 40 deejay. After being unceremoniously laid off or fired from stations in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, he took a job as a marketing executive for the Kansas City Royals. In 1983, Limbaugh returned to radio work as a , newsman and commentator for Kansas City’s KMBZ. Within a year, Sacramento’s KFBK had chosen him to replace Morton Downey Jr. Four years later, EFM Media Management, an independent radio production company, brought him to New York City and took his show national.

Since then, Limbaugh has drawn steadily increasing fire from the left. When he spoke at a fund-raising event last April in Rochester, N.Y., the local chapter of the National Organization for Women staged a rally to protest his treatment of women on the air. ”He incites people. He says he doesn’t, but I think he knows he does,” says Trudie Benson, a spokeswoman for the NOW chapter. Says the twice-divorced Limbaugh, with typical effrontery: ”I love the women’s movement. Especially when walking behind it.”

Despite his bombast, Limbaugh doesn’t seem to expect listeners to take his commentary all that seriously. ”What I’m really trying to do here is acquire the largest audience and hold it for as long as I can so I can charge confiscatory advertising rates,” he quips when the mike is turned off. In radio, where minor controversies generate major ratings, the best way to do that is to speak louder than anyone else. The Rush act is, admittedly, noise. ”I’m just a guy on the radio playing sounds,” Limbaugh shrugs.

”I’m right 97 percent of the time,” claims conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh — and even that is one of his typically bombastic opinions. Here are a few of his more provocative views, voiced on the air or in an interview with ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY:

· The Homeless: ”They are not primarily a bunch of hard-working, well-minded, well-intentioned people who, if it hadn’t been for Ronald Reagan, would be working. Most of them are demented in one way or another.”
· Gay Activists: ”Militant gay groups want to blame everybody but themselves for the spread of AIDS. It’s a behaviorally spread disease. If you don’t want to spread the disease, the single thing you do is don’t make love to somebody else’s a——.”
· Date Rape: ”I have a real problem with date rape. Rape is rape. I’m afraid that what feminists are trying to do with date rape is establish that the grand art of seduction can be linked to rape.”
· Global Warming: ”If you buy the global warming argument, you’re no different than those hayseeds and hicks in the Middle West who fell for the recent earthquake prediction.”