NEW YORK – The onset of deafness would paralyze most radio personalities. Rush Limbaugh likens it to a midlife crisis.
"I turned 50 in January," the talk show host said in an interview. "A guy who turns 50 goes out and buys a red Corvette and hunts chicks to prove he's still youthful. Mine is to still do this, basically deaf, and do it better than anybody else."
Limbaugh's Oct. 8 announcement that he's lost most of his hearing was a surprise. That it didn't shake his self-confidence shouldn't be.
Still, the handicap is a career-defining challenge for one of the biggest names in radio (along with Howard Stern and Paul Harvey).
Limbaugh's voice still sounds as if it's descending from the mountaintop, as it did Thursday when he railed against the media for overplaying anthrax reports. He also suggested former President Clinton might have sent vials of salmonella to himself "to get into the action."
"Nothing's stopped me from talking, and that's what I get paid to do," he said. "Nobody's paying me to listen."
Even people who disagree with his conservative politics appreciate Limbaugh's ability as a showman and almost laughable self-regard. ("Do you ever get tired of being right?" he asks. "It's a question I get frequently.")
For those who agree with him, he's a god.
"Try driving across America during the three hours Rush is on and not finding Rush on the AM radio," said Tom Taylor, editor of M Street Daily, a radio trade publication. "Put it on scan and there's a very good chance you'll hear Rush at least once and probably multiple times.
"The marriage of his ability as an entertainer and the politics makes the show. It's not just the politics."
Many of his listeners sensed there was something wrong with his voice this summer before Limbaugh acknowledged it. Limbaugh admitted feeling his voice sometimes "sounded like a chipmunk."
Chicago Tribune arts critic Howard Reich said Limbaugh's voice was too shrill and lacking in character. "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," Reich wrote last week.
It's more difficult for Limbaugh to assess his voice now because he can't really hear it. Of course, he doesn't buy the notion that he's lost his fastball.
"In all candor, some of the funniest and best shows this summer have been since this happened," he said.
His hearing loss was gradual over the past year. Limbaugh is totally deaf in his left ear and can faintly distinguish sounds — but not voices — in his right. Diagnosing it as autoimmune inner-ear disease, doctors are treating him with drugs. If that's unsuccessful, the next step is to implant an electronic device in his ear.
Most of his shows originate from a studio near his South Florida home. An elaborate system has been set up to take calls from viewers, even though he's gradually de-emphasized these over the past few years.
With the help of a slight tape delay, a caller's words are transcribed onto Limbaugh's computer screen. In a separate message box, his producers indicate whether a caller is amiable or angry. Limbaugh watches a dial that records sound waves to see if the caller is talking or has stopped.
To be interviewed for this article, Limbaugh was e-mailed questions and called to answer them in a 25-minute monologue. He couldn't hear follow-ups. He sent a three-paragraph e-mail explaining why he didn't want to answer one question about his show's content, answering it in the process.
Limbaugh said he intends to fill out his contract with the Premiere Radio Network, which was renewed this summer through 2009 for the highest price ever in radio syndication, reportedly $250 million. He's often promised to keep talking until everyone in America agrees with him, figuring it will take until he's 66 or 67.
Premiere wasn't informed about the severity of his hearing loss during negotiations, "because I didn't know the severity," he said. Premiere knew before the contract was signed that he was wearing a hearing aid, said company spokeswoman Amir Forester.
"Despite the diagnosis, they would have signed the same deal," she said.
Limbaugh "sounds much more relaxed" since his announcement, said M Street Daily's Taylor. "He sounds more like the old Rush."
Yet some experts see trouble ahead that has nothing to do with his hearing.
Jerry Del Colliano, publisher of the daily newsletter Inside Radio, said some of Limbaugh's affiliates are having trouble selling ads for his show, although, to be fair, that's also the case with other programs in a difficult economy.
There's a growing sense that Limbaugh doesn't relate to young listeners and has lost his foil now that a Republican is in office, Del Colliano said.
"He doesn't have a target anymore," he said. "What if Howard Stern couldn't talk about breasts? There's half his show. With Rush, it's the same thing if you take away Bill and Hillary and the Democrats. I think the show is already declining."
Limbaugh noted that he had the highest-rated radio talk show before Clinton took office and he still does. Limbaugh, who has been nationally syndicated since 1988, is on nearly 600 radio stations and is heard by about 20 million people each week.
Considering he's such a polarizing figure, Limbaugh said he's been surprised at the support he's gotten since his hearing problems became public. The day after his announcement, he received 38,000 e-mails.
"I haven't had a chance to read them all, that wouldn't be possible, but of the ones where I did scan the subject line, I only found two of them that said, `wish it could have been your voice,"' he said.
Rather than get depressed, he said the episode has made him realize how lucky he is to be doing what he loves.
"I do not intend to become a symbol," he said. "I will not be doing public service announcements for the deaf or disabled. I'm just going to continue to lead my life the best I can and let that be the example."