SOME 20 BLOCKS UPTOWN sits the man who put Limbaugh in that room. Ed McLaughlin is a former president of ABC network radio turned independent producer-distributor. In 1987, he started EFM Media Management, handling Dr. Dean Edell's medical advice show. Two years ago, McLaughlin was tipped off by a consultant to a hot talent in Sacramento, Calif. He flew out, listened to Rush Limbaugh's program in his hotel room . . . and hated it. "He sounds like a real braggart," McLaughlin thought, responding in the way many initially do to what Limbaugh calls "my pompous arrogance shtick."
But then he met Limbaugh, liked him and gave him another hearing, this time under normal listening conditions -- in a car, driving around Sacramento. Now he found Limbaugh compelling. "If you're driving and things are distracting, it's easy to tune out," McLaughlin says. "I found myself not tuning out with Rush."
Finally, McLaughlin came to think that Limbaugh was an exceptional talent, a charismatic showman who understood how to use radio, as well as a strong personality with genuine convictions. Strong enough, in fact, to pluck out of Sacramento and make a national star.
Eventually, the two signed a contract that made them partners in the Rush Limbaugh business. McLaughlin wanted to try marketing Limbaugh in a new way. Talk radio is predominantly a local institution. The few national talk stars (such as the all-knowing adviser Bruce Williams, the relentlessly empathetic Sally Jessy Raphael and the chronic interviewers Larry King and Tom Snyder) are essentially uncontroversial figures who tend to get packaged by their networks along with other features and can only be heard at night, when radio audiences are smaller. McLaughlin's idea was to buck these trends, selling Limbaugh as a separate entity and in daytime. The advantage: the much bigger daytime audience. The disadvantage: having to convince major local radio stations to surrender three key hours a day for a national show.