Ever wonder why Rush Limbaugh’s syndicated show is draped across the radio dial like the proverbial cheap suit? Hint: It’s not necessarily about any perceived popularity that may be attributed to the man who brought Oxycontin addiction to popular national awareness.

If you live in or near to small town America and listen to the AM dial at all, Limbaugh’s bloviations are often the only thing you can pick up on a radio, either at home or on the road. That’s why I have XM satellite radio and a CD player in my car.

OK, so why is his show so “popular?” Why do hundreds of stations around the country carry his show, the most widely syndicated talkfest in the country? Did Rush’s tirades, lies, and rambling idiocy find their way onto hundreds of local radio affiliates across the country because his political views are mainstream? I doubted that this could be the case, and so I set out to find an answer to satisfy my own natural curiosity.

The real story can be found by researching the business of radio via such resources as industry trade magazines like Radio World.

It’s because, I kid you not, Rush’s show was, and still is, given away for free to many local radio stations by way of a little-known practice in broadcast syndication called a “barter deal.” Michael Wolf’s recent article about Rush in Vanity Fair mentions this practice, and from that mention I began my search for more details about its implementation.

Here’s how a barter deal works. To launch the show, Limbaugh’s syndicator, Premiere Radio Networks, the same folks who syndicate that other conservative wing-nut, Glen Beck, give Limbaugh’s three hours away. That’s right, free, to local radio stations, mostly in medium and smaller markets, beginning back in the early 1990’s, and continuing, though to a lesser degree, to this very day.

So, a local talk station can Rush’s show for zilch. In exchange, Premiere takes for itself much of the local station’s available advertising time during that three hour block. Usually something on the order of 15 minutes out of every hour, packing the show with national ads it has already pre-sold.

It’s a very sweet deal for local radio station owners, explains Bill Exline, a well-known radio broker. “Not only does the local station get three hours of free programming,” according to Exline, “but that’s one less local talk-show host on staff they need. It makes small- and medium-market radio properties more profitable and attractive by cutting down staff expenses.”

Thus, by carrying Limbaugh, local radio stations can improve their bottom lines while advancing Rush’s dubious career. At the same time, local stations become far less local in content and focus, becoming nothing more than a series of right-wing echo chambers, piping out canned diatribe instead of real content.

Major-market right-wing talk stations usually have to pay actual money, of course, to carry Limbaugh’s daily rantings and slobbering cacophony of mindless drivel. But regardless of whether they are among the few who pay, or the many who broadcast the show due to the barter deal, they all become nothing more than sieg heil on your dial. The goose-stepping sameness of radio in America holds some people captive by its ubiquity, and drives others away, not because of a wealth of content or a hunger to know, but because it’s free. It’s all about the bottom line folks. It’s not about ideas or ideals. It’s not about popularity, nor even entertainment value. It’s about cheap and/or free programming.

So, when you hear Rush bellowing from your car radio as you’re passing through Intercourse, Pennsylvania, or Beanblossom, Indiana, or Gnawbone, Kentucky, just remember, the radio station is getting what it paid for. And you are left to wonder at the value of free, even at half the price.