It was a great year, no? You can still get a taste of it with a bottle of Beringer Bancroft Ranch Merlot ($70) or a 3-liter Ravenswood Merlot ($57), two fine California vineyards. Back then I drank Ballantine Ale, one of the finest domestic brews ever produced (which is not available in Roanoke, drat).
But I digress. This is a (true) story about your humble correspondent’s brush with infamy. The infamous Rush Limbaugh Radio Show, to be exact. Back in the summer of 1992, I turned down an invitation to be on that show after I pushed their buttons with a handful of letters and a little bit of pre-World Wide Web computer networking.
That invitation came early in the fall of 1992, but the seminal events preceding it occurred in July. What happened was, I got sick, and I don’t really remember the details of the illness. But I was stuck at home, in downtown Annapolis, rather then pulling the normal 7 to 5 shift at The (Annapolis) Capital, where I worked as a reporter at the time.
My eldest daughter was 4 back then (she’ll be 23 in October). Erin, now 20, had just turned 2. Anna (now 17) had been neither been born nor conceived. Zach (who was born in 1998) was years away. Donna worked a retail gig in downtown Annapolis while my mother, who lived about 4 miles outside town, watched our two kids.
So I was home alone, sick. That was when I discovered the Rush Limbaugh Show.
I had suffered a couple days of that bastard when I realized that was enough. One of his favorite “comedy bits” back then was to push a button and play a tape of an obviously black man homeless man, who had been sleeping in a dumpster when the trash truck arrived to empty it.
You’d hear the hydraulic whine of the tipper, then an African-American sounding voice shouting “Hey, hey, let me out! Hey! Hey!” And then silence, then the trash truck driving away.
Then Rush would cut in with an odd cackle and the show would resume. After the Reagan-wrought end of the “Fairness Doctrine,” this crap actually passed for humor in 1994 on American airwaves. A homeless black guy getting killed because he slept in a dumpster. What a laugh riot.
So one of those sick days I decided to do something about it. I sat through an entire Rush Limbaugh show, pencil and pad in hand. And I wrote down all the name of his sponsors. Snapple. Hooked on Phonics. And some others. Back then none of them had Web sites, but they all gave their toll-free phone numbers. And I wrote those down, too.
The next day, I called all of the sponsors’ toll-free phone numbers. For each I had two questions: 1) What is the name of the president of the company? 2) What is the mailing address at which I could send him or her a letter?
I wasn’t a great writer back then (or now, really). But I was a great reporter and I had a great editor. His name is Stu Samuels, and (lucky for the young journalists he edits) he’s still in the business. I’d gather the info for 2 or 3 stories a day, write some slop, and then Stu would make it sound pretty good.
But I didn’t have Stu to help me on this little sick-leave project, and I didn’t want it to be anything that I dashed off. So I worked on “The Letter.” I probably worked for 8 hours on that thing. I wanted it to be less than a page, so I wrote, and rewrote, and tightened and retightened. (Long ago I threw that computer away, otherwise I could pull off a copy for you).
It was a great letter.
In it, I told the president of company this or company that that I had heard their ad on the Rush Limbaugh Show. And the date of the ad and the time. And that I had been thinking of buying their product. But since hearing their ad on the Limbaugh show, I was reconsidering, because I was surprised.
Did you know that he makes fun of sleeping homeless people dying in dumpsters? I asked. Did you know that after the radio bit, Rush would invariably laugh his head off? Did you know that the bit featured the sound of an African-American dying?
Do you think that’s funny? I asked. Because I don’t. It’s racist. And even if if was a homeless white guy, I’ll be damned if I’ll buy Snapple or Hooked on Phonics or (fill in the name of the company’s product here) ever again. It’s laughing at another person’s misfortune, and that’s not funny.
The responses began coming in at the end of July and continued into August. They were a bunch of mealy-mouthed stuff.
But even before they started coming in, I wasn’t done with Rush Limbaugh.
Back then the World Wide Web didn’t exist. But other computer networks did, such as AOL. You would dial into them via a modem. I was a member of the Prodigy network, which had many different bulletin boards, including ones about politics.
I went on the Prodigy politics bulletin board and told them everything I had done. I posted the form letter on which all of the individually tailored letters were based on. And the names of the companies, the names of their presidents, and the addresses at which you could write them.
Somebody — probably one or more of the advertisers, tipped off Rush Limbaugh’s company somewhat late in this game. And the next thing I knew, I was at work one day when Donna called. This was sometime in September or October.
“Dan,” she said, sounding a little exasperated, “some jerk from the Rush Limbaugh Radio Show is calling here. He’s called twice already. He’s asking all kinds of questions, with an ugly tone. And he wants to talk to YOU.”
She gave me his name, Kit Carson, and his phone number, which I forgot years ago. But I wrote it down and I gave him a call.
“Kit Carson, please,” I said when somebody answered.
“Who is calling?” the receptionist asked.
“This is Dan Casey from Annapolis returning his call,” I said. She put me right through.
“Carson,” the guy answered.
“Kit, this is Dan Casey from Annapolis. I understand you want to talk to me.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s about your letters. What do you think you’re up to?”
“Not much,” I said. “I just wrote some letters. I’m just giving your advertisers information about the choices I make in deciding which products to buy,” I said.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked.
“I just told you, Kit,” I replied.
“Who ARE you?” he demanded.
“I’m a nobody, Kit,” I said. “I’m just a radio listener, one who’s disgusted with the garbage your boss is spewing.”
“Well I don’t know who you THINK you are, or what you’re up to,” he began.
“Kit,” I interrupted, “I just TOLD you, man. Aren’t you listening? Do you think you guys can get away, six times a day in a three-hour show, with playing the dying gasps of a homeless black guy — and laughing about it — without somebody complaining?
“I’m complaining, Kit. It’s disgusting. I’m giving YOUR advertisers the information they need about how I base my decisions on what products to buy.
“Obviously, it’s working,” I added. “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have called my wife twice this morning. Why are you bugging her?”
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “I’ll put you on the show. I’ll put you on with Rush,” he said.
“No way,” I replied. “Rush is a radio pro. I’m not. It’s his medium, not mine. I’m not going on the air with him.
“I’ll just stay on the backs of your advertisers,” I added.
“Suit yourself,” he said. And then we hung up.
So if you want to, you could say I chickened out of my opportunity to go on the Rush Limbaugh Radio Show. But screw that. In my mind it was a strategic decision.
The old saying about publishers used to be, “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” And I was thinking along those lines.
Rush is good at radio. I’m not.
So I missed my chance to go on the air, as “Dan from Annapolis,” to be made a fool of by the king of talk radio. No loss there. It would have been like my 4-year-old daughter doing 3 rounds with Muhammed Ali.
Big deal. I got their attention. Kit’s angry tone told me that.
And you know what?
The next time I tuned into Rush, he was playing that radio bit no longer. Maybe it was because of those letters. Maybe not.
Either way, THAT was a victory.