A Sharp Left Turn on Dial

Times Staff Writer

It may well have been the bologna sandwich that spun Big Eddie "the Redhead" Schultz down the path of self-enlightenment, transforming him from a bull-neck, bombastic conservative into a bull-neck, bombastic liberal just itching to grab his talk radio mike and give Rush Limbaugh hell.

But that story will have to wait.

"The Ed Schultz Show" is about to air.

Schultz swings into his seat as his producer counts down 10 seconds until the live broadcast opens. He clamps on his headphones as the taped introduction rolls: "From high above the North American continent, democracy has a new voice. Powerful. Passionate. Persistent."

Schultz lets out an enormous yawn, then swings the microphone toward him. He's on.

"Lock and load, baby," he booms. "If it's got mad cow, I love beef so much I'll still eat it."

He's still chortling at his own quip as he introduces his first guest: conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

For this, Democratic politicians helped solicit $1.8 million from private donors, enough cash to keep the brand-new "Ed Schultz Show" on the air for at least two years. It's not a whim. It's a mission. Democrats are counting on Schultz -- a onetime sportscaster who used to mock the homeless on the air -- to anchor the AM dial nationwide as the provocative new voice of the left.

Well, maybe not exactly the left. Schultz, 49, has voted for only one Democrat that he can recall, a local congressman. He's opposed to abortion in all circumstances. He considers Buchanan a friend. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, he says, gives him "the willies."

He's prone to say things like: "I'd like to see the president get all the illegals out of the country, so we can start all over again."

And yet, thanks to that bologna sandwich, Schultz considers himself "a gun-toting, meat-eating leftie."

"This is the most selfish generation in the history of the country!" he shouted into his mike when a caller asked him about the federal deficit. His eyes were closed, his face was red and his hands slashed at the air. "The people lining the Bush campaign's pockets are running this country. The little guys don't have a say anymore."

Then Big Eddie looked up and winked. When he gets in a good one, he likes everyone to notice. "Hey," he'll call over to his producer at a commercial break, "that was a pretty good pip on Bush, wasn't it?"

Though his irreverent, raucous style sounds familiar, Schultz's assaults on the Bush administration sharply contrast with the conservative commentary that dominates the radio airwaves. While Limbaugh was calling former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill "childish" for criticizing President Bush in a new book, Schultz was gleefully trumpeting O'Neill's harshest comments. While Limbaugh was mocking O'Neill as deaf and blind to reality -- "the Helen Keller of the Cabinet" -- Schultz was dredging out clips of the president praising his treasury secretary as a "straight shooter."

"By God, Ed, you're doing good stuff, trying to get the truth out," liberal Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa told him on the air.

Limbaugh's comments, of course, commanded a much larger audience. He draws 15 million listeners a week, on 600 stations nationwide.

Schultz's show, which premiered Jan. 5, currently airs on just a dozen stations, mostly in small towns like Steamboat Springs, Colo., Brownwood, Texas, and Needles, Calif. Its biggest market is Oklahoma City. (It's also broadcast live on XM satellite radio and online, though the server crashes often, at www.bigeddieradio.com.)

Ratings won't be available for several months. Still, Schultz's backers say they're confident his show will take off. "Democracy is best served," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, "by having many voices on the air."

Getting those voices on the air has long been a Democratic Party goal.

Former Vice President Al Gore is leading an effort to develop a left-leaning cable TV channel. Another group is raising funds to buy radio stations in big cities to air liberal-friendly programming, including a show by comedian and bestselling author Al Franken.

"The Ed Schultz Show" has been promoted by a third coalition, Democracy Radio. Executive Director Tom Athans surveyed national talk radio last year and found that more than 2,000 stations broadcast conservative shows, while fewer than 80 aired liberal programs.

What's more, only a handful of the liberal hosts drew good ratings.

At the top of that very small pack was Schultz.

A much-loved (and much-hated) sportscaster famed for his raucous play-by-play of North Dakota college football, Schultz grew up in Virginia, but moved to the Midwest to study -- and play quarterback -- at Minnesota State University in Moorhead. His passing skills earned him tryouts with the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets. When he didn't make the cut, he switched to reporting games from the sideline. He still has a football player's brawny build, though his red hair is thinning.

After two decades of sports reporting, Schultz launched a 2 1/2-hour regional talk show in 1996.

The show, which he continues to host, blends interviews with local officials and sharp-edged banter with callers, spiced up with Big Eddie's rants about national affairs. He might report on a local school board meeting, break for the latest on pork belly futures, then swerve into acid commentary on the presidential primaries. The broadcast area reaches into South Dakota and Minnesota; on any given morning, nearly 30% of radio listeners in the region are tuned in to his show.

For years, Schultz's patter on the regional show was conservative. He scoffed at the homeless for complaining about the cold. "How about getting a job?" he'd ask. He sneered at the three Democrats who represent him in Congress, nicknaming them the Three Stooges.

"I lined up with the Republicans because they were antitax, and I wanted to make a lot of money," Schultz said.

About two years ago, listeners began to hear a softer tone.

Schultz had once derided farmers for relying on government subsidies. Now he was pounding Bush for not offering extra aid during a drought. He was calling for universal health insurance. And more services for homeless veterans.

Some dismayed fans suspected a cynical motive. "My own opinion is, he knew he would never go national if he stayed on the right or in the middle. I truly believe he moved to the left because he thought that's where his career would get the biggest boost," said Ron Gilmore, 42, who runs a cleaning business in Fargo. "You don't change your politics overnight like he did without a goal in mind."

Schultz insists his transformation was genuine. It all started, he says, with the bologna sandwich.

In 1998, Schultz met Wendy Noack, a psychiatric nurse, at a party. She agreed to a lunch date but told him they'd have to meet at the Salvation Army cafeteria next to the homeless shelter where she worked.

"You should have seen his face as he was moving along the line with his tray, getting his bologna sandwich and his cup of Campbell's soup. He was appalled," said Wendy, now his wife.

One of the homeless men eating there recognized Schultz from his TV sportscasts and called him over. Schultz had always written off the homeless as lazy. But as he talked to the man, he says, he started to realize that was too simplistic. On future dates -- over better food -- he and Wendy talked about the men at the shelter. Hearing their stories, he regretted dismissing them all as bums.

Those conversations started him thinking. But Schultz's political outlook did not swing fully around until 2001, when he took his regional show on the road. In their 38-foot Winnebago, Schultz traveled North Dakota with Wendy, broadcasting from small towns and ranches.

For the first time, he sat down to talk with farmers, with teachers, with mothers who couldn't afford to take their kids to the doctor.

"I saw suffering," he said. And he aired it, opening his mike to ordinary people and their stories of struggle. The more he listened, he said, the more he came to believe that Democrats were doing more for "the little guy."

Schultz knows his critics view him as an opportunist.

"I just ask 'em, 'Do you want me to go back to the other side?' " he said.

"Isn't it great, though," he added, serious now, "that people can change?"

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York agrees. Though his views may not line up with hers on every issue, the former first lady considers Schultz a personal friend -- and a friend of the Democratic Party -- because he takes on the Bush White House with gusto. His conservative background gives her no pause.

"I believe in redemption," said Clinton, who twice this month has made time for Schultz to interview her on air. Clinton met Schultz last spring, when Democracy Radio's Athans brought the talk-show host to Washington to confer with liberal lawmakers. The politicians did not contribute funds. But Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana hosted a party to introduce Schultz to potential donors. Other politicians pledged to go on air with him often.

They delivered, too: In the national show's first few days, Schultz interviewed Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and a dozen other top politicians. ("Remember me?" he asked Feinstein minutes before she went on the air. "I'm the fat redhead you met at the Senate caucus.")

Though Schultz has proved he can land interviews with big-name Democrats, skeptics wonder whether listeners want to hear them.

The talk-radio audience is dominated by white men 35 to 54. Talkers magazine, a trade journal, estimates that more than a third are conservative and only one in 10 is liberal, with the rest falling somewhere in the middle.

Conservative hosts say their fans turn to talk radio for views they can't find in the rest of the media. "Network TV and the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times axis is totally dominated by the left," said G. Gordon Liddy, whose talk show airs on 178 stations.

"Now the left, never satisfied with 9/10ths of the pie, has gotten its knickers in a twist about talk radio. It's a free country. They're certainly welcome to try," Liddy said. "But I'm inclined to think ... listeners will say, 'Look, we can get all that stuff already.' "

Many station managers apparently agree. Nearly all the top national hosts are conservative: Limbaugh, Liddy, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham and others. Programmers are reluctant to tamper with that formula.

Even KFGO, the AM station out of Fargo that broadcasts Schultz's regional show, has not picked up the national program.

KTOX in Needles did take the risk. Station manager David Hayes bumped Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who's rated third in the nation, to run Schultz live. He's received close to 60 calls, he said, and they're running 2 to 1 in favor of Schultz.

"I really like the guy," said Bob Weyand, 50, who owns a towing service in Needles and tunes in often. "A lot of hosts won't listen to the other view.... But Ed doesn't tell you to shut up. He seems really down to earth."

Schultz plays up that man-of-the-people persona, calling himself the voice of the "working stiff." He continues to do the regional show in the morning from the KFGO studios on the snow-swept edge of Fargo, across from Bottle Barn Liquor, Big Top Bingo and a hearing aid store. Then his wife, who has left nursing to work as his producer, grabs some sandwiches and they eat in the office, zipping through e-mail and lining up interviews for the national show.

Schultz preps by watching TV news and scanning bullet-point summaries of articles. He's not big on context. And sometimes, he's flat-out wrong, as when he suggests that the president wants to legalize undocumented workers so they'll vote for him in 2004. Even if Bush's plan became law, the beneficiaries would not be eligible to vote for years.

"The average commercial radio listener in America is not looking for lofty, intellectual subjects," Schultz said. "This isn't brain surgery. It's about striking the passion of the people."

At the same time, Schultz makes clear that his goal is to win ratings, not woo converts to the liberal cause. He wants listeners to tune in because they enjoy his commentary and laugh along with his braying "heh heh heh heh!" If he convinces them that he's right, great. But his main motivation for doing the show, he said, is "to be successful, to go as far in my career as I can."

Later, he lets himself daydream about taking the Winnebago on the road for his national show, inviting fans in state after state to the mike.

"Do you know how cool it's going to be when we get on a bunch of stations and we can go do the show from a small town in Middle America?" he said. "People are going to think, 'This guy really cares.' "

Big Eddie grinned. "And I do."

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