Limbaugh: A virtuoso no longer in control of his art
              By Howard Reich            Tribune arts critic               Published October 19, 2001

              The sound was unmistakable: a deep, chesty baritone  matched by an oratorical style
              one might sooner expect to hear on the Shakespearean stage.

              Whether you celebrated Rush Limbaugh's conservative cant or abhorred it, no one
              could deny that the man was a master technician at using his pipes. Every angry roar
              or hearty laugh or below-the-breath whisper had impact, every pregnant pause made
              a palpably dramatic point.

              But Limbaugh's much-publicized loss of approximately 80 percent of his hearing has
              had an effect perhaps even a man with "talent on loan from god," as he often chortled,
              could not predict: He has lost control of an instrument he had spent a lifetime learning
              to use to perfection. Like a great pianist who develops carpal-tunnel syndrome or a
              leonine saxophonist whose embouchure is destroyed, Limbaugh now stands as a
              former virtuoso no longer in control of his art.

              The incendiary language and unabashedly conservative philosophies may be fully
              intact, but the tool that delivered Limbaugh's message so effectively to millions in the
              1990s has been virtually undone, and it's plain to hear weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2
              p.m. on WLS-AM 890.

              It had been a couple of months since I last tuned in to Limbaugh, but the hubbub over
              his hearing loss (which his doctors attribute to autoimmune inner-ear disease)
              prompted a return visit. And for at least a minute or two, it sounded as if a guest host
              were sitting in for America's most popular radio personality. The voice was too
              high-pitched, too shrill, too lacking in nuance and inflection and character to be even
              an ailing Limbaugh.

              But as a commercial break approached, Limbaugh identified himself, and at that
              moment it became apparent -- in retrospect -- how much control, technique and vocal
              prowess he once commanded. Others, too, have come to the realization that the
              identity Limbaugh long had established through sound no longer exists.

              "Rush always has had this character that he does, this person with a thundering and
              blustery voice, and that's what's missing," says Steve Dahl, a Chicago radio veteran
              heard 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WCKG-FM 105.9.

              "But now, since he can't hear his voice, he's probably trying to think about how to make
              those sounds. And the worst thing for Rush Limbaugh would be having to think about
              how to do it.

              "Because if you have to think about it, it won't sound natural."

              Indeed, the radio act that Limbaugh developed over the years had become practically
              instinctive, the mere sight of a "wacko liberal" editorial in the New York Times or a
              provocative statement by a "feminazi" inspiring some of his most fulsome orations.
              Like all of America's most vivid radio personalities -- from the sex-obsessed Howard
              Stern to the manic Mancow Muller to the wickedly satirical Don Imus -- Limbaugh was
              as much actor as commentator, as much self-caricature as media star.

              But the figure Limbaugh portrayed cannot be drawn without the essential tool of the trade.

              "What's happening to Rush is bizarre -- you can tell he has no clue as to where his
              voice is," says John Williams, heard 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WGN-AM 720.

              "It's like trying to hammer a nail without looking. You've got the hammer, you feel your
              way around, but your aim is all off."

              Master of sound effects

              And it's not only Limbaugh's voice that's off-key, for the man had developed a range of
              sound effects he had used as effectively as his vocal cords. Annoyed at a sound bite
              from a Democratic congressman, he would sit almost silent, but for the ominous and
              relentless tapping of his fingers upon his desk. Irked by a newspaper article attacking
              one of his heroes, he would crumple the paper in disgust or turn the page so loudly it
              sounded as if it had been ripped in half.

              Small details, to be sure, yet in the realm of radio, they constituted a revolution.

              "The old school of radio is that you make no noise around you," Williams says.
              "When you turn a page, you do it so quietly that the listener never knows.

              "Rush obliterated that," Williams continues. "Not that he was the first person on radio
              to rustle papers, but because he has such a big audience, everyone thinks he
              invented it. He sure made it popular."

              Within the realm of radio, Limbaugh is hardly the first radio personality to struggle with
              his instrument. Williams, of WGN, recalls periods in his life when he began losing his
              voice and needed speech therapy to relearn how to use it. And Muller, who taxes his
              voice throughout his "Mancow Morning Madness" show (5 to 10 a.m. weekdays on
              WKQX-FM 101.1), suffers the effects of tintinitis -- a constant ringing in his ears.

              "Every night when I go to bed, I have to have a machine on that drowns out the noise in
              my ears," says Muller, who attributes the problem to an occupational hazard --
              headphones blasting in his ears several hours a day.

              "To do this show, you have to have the sound jacked up, and it's ridiculously loud," he adds.
              "I blow headphones constantly. They just don't make headphones that can withstand the loudness I need.

              "So I've developed this tintinitis. It's an occupational hazard."

              Speaking in the dark

              Yet it pales alongside the crisis that Limbaugh is experiencing, since he does not
              know how he sounds and must rely on engineers controlling the buttons and switches
              to help him maintain a fraction of his old vocal identity.

              Should Limbaugh's hearing return, there's no reason to doubt that his vocal virtuosity
              would come back, as well. At the very least, he appears to be trying to convey a note of
              optimism rather than despair.

              "The more the reality of what's happened with my hearing hits me, the more I realize
              just how much I was born to do what I do," Limbaugh recently said on his Web site

              "Had I been born not too many years earlier, none of this would be technologically possible."

              But the technological devices that are helping Limbaugh and his engineers get
              around his hearing loss in some ways may be compounding the problem, at least so
              far as the quality of his voice is concerned.

              Time to reinvent?

              "When you listen to him on the radio now, you can tell they're running his voice through
              machines to give it a higher pitch, so that his speech will sound clearer or brighter,"
              says Dahl, who believes that Limbaugh should consider losing the mannerisms and
              bluster of old and reinvent himself.

              "But it doesn't sound natural. Maybe he just should go with what he really sounds like
              now, tell people that this is the real voice as he now sounds.

              "I think his audience, which is already very loyal, would be sympathetic.

              "But if, subconsciously, fans feel they're not getting the real thing or that they're being
              deceived, they're going to feel cheated.

              "On radio, you've got to be honest if you're going to survive."


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