Television network executives looking for new talent are accustomed to getting pleas from agents urging them to check out their clients.
But in the last few weeks, MSNBC has experienced a different kind of onslaught: a flood of unsolicited endorsements from fans of liberal radio hosts touting them as the network’s next potential big star.
The grass-roots campaigns were triggered by the news that the cable channel is contemplating creating a new show for its 7 p.m. time slot, currently occupied by a repeat of “Countdown With Keith Olbermann.” That prompted the launch of independent Facebook groups extolling the merits of two radio hosts: Cenk Uygur of the Internet show “The Young Turks” and Sam Seder of Air America.
The lobbying efforts have drawn thousands of supporters and led fans to pepper MSNBC with e-mails in support of their favorite personality. Hundreds of people have posted messages of support online, some even creating their own video spots. (Give the time slot to “The Young Turks,” warns one, “or I’ll switch back to CNN.”) Liberal bloggers on sites like MyDD.com have also weighed in.
They all hope that MSNBC will choose a host cast from the same left-leaning mold as Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, who have helped power the cable channel’s ratings.
“You have a block with two unabashedly progressive voices that doesn’t exist anywhere else on cable news,” said Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos, who urged his readers to back Seder for the spot. “We want to take advantage of locking up that third hour, if we can.”
MSNBC President Phil Griffin said he’s not necessarily looking for someone who shares the political leanings of Olbermann and Maddow, but is delighted by the response.
“If people identify with us, I’m thrilled,” he said.
“Obviously, we’re going to have flow between our shows,” Griffin added. “But it isn’t going to be ideology that drives it. I want that hour to be edgy, to be smart, to be a little snarky.”
At this point, the search for a new host is just an “aspiration,” said Griffin, noting that the network may not even select someone by the year’s end. But he said he had been floored by the reaction, which has included “dozens and dozens of phone calls from people I never thought about or considered.”
“It’s just incredible and just shows you where MSNBC is,” he said. “We’ve had times when hours have been open and nobody noticed.”
That’s changed in recent years as the network got traction with Olbermann, who drew a following for his full-throated denunciations of the Bush administration, and then Maddow, whose brainy take on politics was an immediate hit.
In the process, MSNBC has been criticized for melding opinion with news, even as it excited the political left.
“For years, while everyone has always talked about this liberal media bias, we haven’t seen it on cable television,” said Peter Slutsky, a Democratic consultant who started the Facebook campaign for Seder with his brother, Matthew. “I believe strongly that MSNBC has been so successful because it has decided to drive a firm position to the left.”
There are signs that approach is seeping into the network’s daytime programming: This week, anchor David Shuster announced that he would feature an issue from the “progressive blogosphere” each day on his show “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” (Griffin said the segment would spotlight “new voices” from across the political spectrum.)
Still, among many on the left, the network’s partisan credentials are viewed with some skepticism. “All they really have is Olbermann and Maddow, and then they have a three-hour block in the morning that is completely right-wing,” said Uygur, referring to “Morning Joe,” hosted by former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough. “But at least they’re trying.”
Uygur, a former attorney who launched “The Young Turks” seven years ago, currently spends three hours a day talking politics and pop culture on his show. The program would be the perfect complement to MSNBC’s lineup, he argued, in part because it brings a built-in following. After being carried on Sirius and Air America, “The Young Turks” is now solely online, and videos on its YouTube Channel have accumulated more than 66 million hits.
“We have an online audience that would instantly be watching,” he said.
More than 4,400 people have joined “The Young Turks” Facebook campaign, which has adopted some of the lingo from Barack Obama’s presidential bid. A promo video declares “Yes We Can!” and one fan remade the iconic Obama “hope” poster with Uygur’s face.
“First we got Obama. If we get Cenk on TV, too. . . . WOW!” wrote one Orlando supporter.
It’s no coincidence that the Facebook effort was launched by one of the same activists who started a similar appeal on behalf of Maddow last year. Fans cite Maddow’s success as proof that an online base of support can translate into strong television ratings; she now regularly beats CNN’s Larry King in the key 25- to 54-year-old demographic.
“This is the next step in the future of Internet activism,” said Seder, who has worked with Maddow at Air America. “I think there’s a real hunger out there for new voices who will speak more truth to power and who are less ensconced in the establishment machine. Someone like Maddow really represents that. She did not come up through the classic channels, and that’s encouraged and emboldened people.”
That’s what drove Slutsky to start up the Facebook campaign on behalf of Seder.
“This whole idea of going to journalism school and working your way through satellite stations -- it’s a good way to do it, but stars are born all kinds of ways,” Slutsky said. “Having the power of the Internet behind you is just as powerful as having a Hollywood agent on your side.”
Indeed, the campaigns have Griffin’s attention; he has the e-mails printed out and sifts through them. But he doesn’t have a candidate in mind yet.
“One thing I know is that I don’t know who it’s going to be, so there’s an opportunity there,” he said. “I don’t want the same old same old. I want something new and fresh and innovative.”