MSNBC’s Ed Schultz: A rare liberal success in broadcasting

Flip through the radio dial any given afternoon and you might hear an angry-sounding white man railing against the government, Congress and dastardly politicians.

No, not Rush Limbaugh.

This one criticizes Congress for not giving more help to the poor, the government for cutting off unemployment benefits, and politicians for pledging to dissolve unions. Ed Schultz has, over the last two years, made a niche in radio and on TV by talking about the poor and middle class, solidly gaining in ratings while more and more Americans lost jobs, benefits and middle class status.

“Republicans are waging another secret war on workers,” he says at the top of a recent TV show, which airs at 8 p.m., putting Schultz up against Anderson Cooper and Bill O’Reilly.

Media outlets have tried to speak on behalf of progressive causes before but rarely with success.

Liberal radio network Air America filed for bankruptcy twice during the six years it was in operation and closed shop in 2010. Before that, there was Democracy Radio, which folded in 2004. Current TV has been struggling for six years, even after snapping up anchor Keith Olbermann from MSNBC last year.


Part of the problem is that corporate advertisers are leery of buying space on liberal broadcasts that often attack corporate interests, noted Jeff Cohen, an associate professor of journalism at Ithaca College. In 2006, a leaked internal memo from ABC Radio Networks revealed a list of corporations that requested their commercials never be placed on Air America.

Good ratings will lead to advertising dollars — the left-leaning and highly successful"Daily Show"and “Colbert Report” are proof of that, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

But those shows appeal to younger liberal viewers with their sarcastic senses of humor, she noted; a broadcast rooted in a more conventional discussion of liberal views is a harder sell.

Schultz, however, isn’t content with anemic ratings. He’s presenting himself as the one true advocate for the working man. On the air and in promotional spots, he reminds viewers that he’s standing up for the unemployed and the middle class.

“They’re appealing to the anxious worker and to the middle class and to the liberal constituency,” Jamieson said.

Ratings suggest the tactic is working. This year through early February, Schultz’s nightly viewership has averaged 608,000, a 60% increase from his ratings during the same period in 2010, according to Nielsen. He’s surpassed Cooper, who airs in the same time slot, though he has more than a million fewer viewers than O’Reilly, who also airs at 8 p.m.

“Schultz has very intelligently aligned himself with the interests of large groups of people in this country who have not been spoken for,” said Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers, a website and magazine that follows talk radio.

There’s a rise in “liberal” broadcasting because there are more poor people looking for someone who talks to them, Harrison said.

Take Kelly Wiedemer, a 45-year-old living in Denver who was out of work for three years before finding a part-time job at a gas station. As one of the 99ers — people who have exhausted their 99 weeks of unemployment benefits — she says that Schultz was one of the only people she heard talking about long-term unemployment when the issue emerged in 2010.

“He was our voice,” she said. “He really did make a difference” in getting groups such as the Congressional Black Caucus interested in the 99ers and putting forth legislation to extend benefits.

Schultz might seem an unlikely advocate, especially since he was a Republican until 2000. He started out as a sports radio broadcaster in Fargo, N.D., taking insights from the years he spent playing college football (he had hoped to be drafted in 1978 but was passed over).

Some conservatives have accused Schultz of converting to liberalism because he saw an opportunity as a left-wing talk show host. Schultz disputes that, saying that meeting his wife, Wendy, a psychiatric nurse who took him to a homeless shelter on their first date, helped open his eyes to progressive causes.

Schultz seems a little lost without Wendy, who produces his radio show and brings him soup for lunch. During his show, she holds up handwritten pieces of paper, telling him where callers are from and how much time he has left on each segment, a steady presence next to the nervous, excited personality Schultz becomes when talking to real people.

“You don’t roll out of bed and say, ‘Hey, I’m a lefty,’” he said in an interview in his office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. “But in the mid-'90s, I saw farm crises; I saw the out migration of rural America; I saw how families were being strangled when it came to education and healthcare.”

It’s possible Schultz’s years as a conservative talk radio host helped him hone the combative personality that conservatives such as Limbaugh are known for. It’s gotten him into trouble before: Schultz was suspended from MSNBC for a week last year after calling conservative radio host Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” on his radio show.

But there’s also something very working-man about him that seems to draw in viewers who might otherwise be watching sports. He starts the day in sweat pants and doesn’t change into a suit and tie until just before the TV broadcast. He likes to fish and hunt, and fishing pictures are posted on the wall in his office next to broadcast awards.

Schultz likes talking to working people. He’s taken the show all over the country — to Ohio and Wisconsin, Oregon and Minnesota — to draw attention to issues facing the working class. His disciples call themselves “Ed Heads.”

“He’s kind of a rock star among some of our members,” says Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer of theAFL-CIO.

Schultz seems happiest when talking to people who aren’t elected to anything. During a taping of his radio show, his eyes go dull and his shoulders slump when U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) comes on air to talk about federal laws to prevent sexual abuse of children. But when answering live calls from Bill in Rockford or Carla in Dallas, Schultz throbs with energy, mocking critics, firing up supporters, cutting off long-winded callers with aplomb.

“This is a guy who understands how to connect with real people,” said Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC.

Griffin hired Schultz after running into him at a White House news conference. In what Griffin calls a “tornado of a meeting,” Schultz pitched a show to Griffin, who had never thought of hiring the then-radio host.

Since Schultz went on the air in 2009, Griffin has twice moved the show to better time slots — first from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and then in October to 8 p.m., in prime time, the spot once anchored by MSNBC star Keith Olbermann.

“Right now, Ed will succeed because he’s in the bull’s eye of so many issues,” he said.