NEW YORK — You didn’t have to like or even listen to Rush Limbaugh to be affected by what he did.
Conservative talk radio wasn’t a genre before him. Without Limbaugh, it’s hard to imagine a Fox News Channel, or a President Donald Trump, or a media landscape defined by shouters of all stripes that both reflect and influence a state of political gridlock.
To his fans, Limbaugh’s death Wednesday of lung cancer at the age of 70 was an occasion for deep mourning. For his foes, it was good riddance. Somewhere, Rush could surely appreciate it.
He left a legacy.
“He was the most important individual media figure of the last four decades,” said Ian Reifowitz, professor of historical studies at the State University of New York.
That assessment was freely offered even though Reifowitz isn’t a fan.
Former Vice President Mike Pence told Fox he was inspired by Limbaugh to become a talk radio host himself, which launched his political career. Ex-White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany reminisced about riding as a child in her father’s pick-up truck as Limbaugh’s show played on the radio.
“I am the definition of a ‘Rush baby,’ and it’s not just me,” McEnany said on Twitter. “There are tens of thousands of us all across the conservative movement.”
Radio hosts talked politics before Limbaugh, men like Jerry Williams in Boston and Barry Farber in New York.
But the idea of conservative talk radio didn’t take hold until Limbaugh, after bouncing through DJ jobs in Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Sacramento, went national from a perch at New York’s WABC in 1988, said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine.
Limbaugh was a sensation among people who liked to tweak liberals, outraging with political incorrectness. Before Limbaugh, only 30 or 40 stations did “talk radio,” and many weren’t political, Harrison said. Now there are thousands.
To the end, Limbaugh led the field. He reached an estimated 15.5 million people each week and lost in the ratings for three months only once in some three decades, to advice host Laura Schlessinger, Harrison said. Bumper stickers proclaimed, “Rush is Right.”
“There is no talk radio as we know it without Rush Limbaugh. It just doesn’t exist,” said Sean Hannity, who has 15 million radio listeners beyond his Fox News Channel show. “And I’d even make the argument in many ways: there’s no Fox News or even some of these other opinionated cable networks.”
Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes launched Fox News in 1996. MSNBC started the same year.
Politics seemed second to entertainment in Limbaugh’s early years.
“I’m trying to attract the largest audience I can and hold it for as long as I can so that I can charge advertisers confiscatory advertising rates,” Limbaugh told Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” in 1991. “This is a business.”
But he soon became more than a business leader. Republicans credited Limbaugh for helping them win the House majority in 1994.
“It wasn’t just that he transformed the media landscape, but he transformed the Republican Party,” said Nicole Hemmer, author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” “He became a power player and someone who could move voters.”
On Foxnews.com, Limbaugh’s obituary’s headline was “Greatest of All Time.”
As Limbaugh’s political strength became evident, many Republican politicians felt they couldn’t cross him, or run the risk of alienating his millions of listeners, Hemmer said.