WLS locks in Limbaugh through 2019

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh will continue to hold forth on news/talk WLS AM 890 through the end of 2019, thanks to a three-year renewal announced Wednesday by Cumulus Media and Premiere Networks.

The Cumulus Media station here was one of 33 nationwide covered by the renewed and extended affiliation agreement for “The Rush Limbaugh Show,” billed as the most-listened-to national radio talk show in America. Terms of the multimillion-dollar deal were not disclosed.

Calling Limbaugh “a unique and true broadcaster,” Bob Walker, senior vice president of operations and co-head office of programming for Cumulus Media, said in a statement: “We’re pleased to continue offering ‘The Rush Limbaugh Show’ on our market-leading brands, which connect with millions of consumers and drive positive results for our partners.”

Not everyone at WLS was celebrating the news that Limbaugh will continue there (along with syndicated talkers Mark Levin and Michael Savage). Limbaugh has been on from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays since the station launched its news/talk format in 1989. Recent efforts to broaden the station's appeal included the addition of Chicago Bulls basketball, Chicago White Sox baseball and local hosts Steve Dahl in afternoons and Big John Howell and Ray Stevens in mornings.

Rumors have persisted for years that WLS bosses were looking to drop the show, which generates scant revenue for the station. The list of advertisers who avoid Limbaugh grew after his controversial remarks about Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, triggered a boycott in 2012. As recently as March 2015, sources said WLS was poised to pull the plug on Limbaugh, but that report was shot down.

The companywide mandate to retain Limbaugh's show contradicts a pledge to return control of programming decisions to local stations. Shortly after Mary Berner was named CEO of Cumulus Media, she promised an end to years of autocratic management under former leaders Lew Dickey and John Dickey.

“Who knows their markets better than the people who live and work there?” Berner said earlier this year. “We believe that the injection of more local insight and more effective corporate support into our programming decisions will drive improved ratings outcomes for our stations. Cumulus program directors will now report to market managers and will have control over the day-to-day programming of their stations, which has not been the case in the past.”

Peter Bowen, vice president and Chicago market manager of Cumulus Media, declined to comment on Limbaugh’s renewal Wednesday.

But one of Bowen’s predecessors was quick to react. Michael Damsky, the veteran Chicago radio executive who served as president and general manager of WLS from 2008 to 2012, tweeted: “My own feeling is Rush irrelevant post-election. Hurts ratings and revenue. But hey, what do I know?”

In the latest Nielsen Audio survey, middays on WLS (from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays) rank fourth with a 4.8 percent share and cumulative weekly audience of 304,400. Among listeners between 25 and 54, WLS tied for 20th in middays with a 2.4 share and 103,000 cume.