As a rule, Rush Limbaugh avoids interviews, but for the first annual Museum of Television & Radio Festival Oct. 25, he made an exception.
"Remember, it's always 'no,' first," he said. "Then I'll think about it."
Perhaps because he was among his peers, he let down his defenses a bit. In spite of his reputation for self-affirming bombast on the air, Limbaugh revealed some of his insecurities to the group of radio industry pros.
"I go in every day and think I have to prove myself," he admitted.
Although he's acclaimed as the highest rated national talk show in the country and heard on 666 affiliates, the star of the Excellence in Broadcasting Network can't ignore those liberals and leftists who openly despise him.
"It's tough to go home and say [to my wife], 'Honey, half the people hate my guts -- I feel great,' " he told the audience of 200. "Nobody ever hated me. I was totally amazed. I was devastated."
When the president of The Museum of TV & Radio, Robert Batscha, asked the star of the two-week festival to define his show, he replied, "When you try to figure out what you do, you tend to become a caricature of yourself."
But the guest of honor offered his analysis of his immediate superstardom.
"Finally, there's someone who didn't make fun of them," he explained. "Here's someone saying what they thought."
He believes the second key to success was his combination of "irreverence and seriousness," which he said was a new concept in talk when he entered the arena.
The man who discovered Rush and made him into today's nationwide phenomenon, Ed McLaughlin, credits the conservative gadfly with creating the first successful nationwide political talk show. When he first heard his local show in Sacramento, the radio businessman knew he had struck gold.
"He truly transcended what you had to do with a national show," McLaughlin reflected. "That's how he skewed his program; it was what interested him. It was not a local show. I wanted him in daytime."
Although the former ABC Radio Network president had plenty of contacts in the business, McLaughlin had difficulty selling Limbaugh's show as a daytime program. Most stations preferred to put on national talk shows, such as Bruce Williams, at night or during the weekends.
"I was turned down by every major station I pitched," McLaughlin recalled. "When we started, no one was giving a national voice to conservatism on talk radio."
However, Limbaugh insisted that his career ambition, rather than politics, drove him.
"I didn't come to New York to be a political force: I came to be a broadcaster," he told the audience. "I had no agenda, but to be the most listened-to talk show in America."
McLaughlin granted his wish.
Limbaugh's boss insisted that the man whom many believe played a major role in bringing the Republicans to power in the last congressional elections is a genuine conservative and not an opportunist.
Only a few of the other radio professionals disagreed with McLaughlin. Both liberal and conservative New York radio hot shots heaped credit on the broadcasting icon.
Political Republican consultant and syndicated talk host Jay Severin, who is heard on KCKC AM radio."
"He was in the right place at the right time," noted WABC-AM's Lynn Samuels, one of New York radio's few liberal -- and female -- talk hosts who spoke at the festival. She also noted that "Rush wannabes" have imitated him by flying solo, without guests.
Another festival panelist, Ed Koch, the former New York mayor-turned-talk host, emphasized that although Limbaugh is more about entertainment than politics, he has had an impact on the political thinking of his listeners.
Veteran syndicated host Barry Farber of Major Networks called Limbaugh "the volcano that illuminated the sky-- like the toppling of Stalin."
But the object of their awe maintains that his monumental celebrity status does not faze him.
"You're not going to believe it: I'm not energized by it," he told the audience. "I stay away from photographers."