Talk Radio Bridges The Political Divide (05/09/05)
Ed Schultz: Democracy Radio/Jones Radio Networks
So you think liberals - or “progressives,” as they're called today - can't do commercial Talk radio? You've heard that they're too serious, they're humorless and they only talk straight politics? Or maybe that they've been doing liberal talk for years - on National Public Radio? Well, you'd better not mention any of that to Ed Schultz, who's now broadcasting on 95 stations, in 8 of the top 10 markets coast-to-coast.
No question, that's a far cry from the hundreds of stations that carry Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage or Laura Ingraham. But now, more than 15 years after Limbaugh almost single-handedly saved the AM band with his conservative brand of Talk radio, the left side of the aisle is firing back. Loyal conservatives say the unbalanced game of catch-up is helpless and futile. But one could have said that about the Boston Red Sox in the fourth game of the American League Championship Series last October, when the New York Yankees were already mentally sizing their World Series rings.
Enter Ed Schultz, whose show, produced and syndicated by Democracy Radio and distributed by Jones Radio Networks, is arguably the most widely syndicated progressive daily talk show on radio today. The Ed Schultz Show is not, he claims, a politicized program that continually assaults the president and conservatives. It is, rather, a show that touches listeners on real-life economic and social issues.
A Virginia native, Schultz attended college in Moorehead, MN, on a football scholarship. After taking a stab at a professional football career, he moved to Fargo, ND, where he landed a job as a TV sportscaster. He spent nearly 15 years doing play-by-play and color commentary for local teams, and ultimately landed a gig as Talk radio host on KFGO-AM. Schultz's bombastic, fearless on-air persona quickly catapulted him to the top of the ratings chart, where he still maintains a 20+ share in a five-state market.
Not always a liberal, his views shifted to left-of-center when he met his wife Wendy, who invited him to lunch at the Salvation Army shelter where she worked. Although he often had chastised the “homeless bums” on his show, this face-to-face contact with poverty shed new light on his comments - and his beliefs. The couple took his program News And Views on the road in the “Big Eddie Cruiser,” a customized motor home, to connect with the people. Along the way, he says, they met families and farmers struggling to make ends meet. On that trek, he says, he found his “true, progressive voice.”
When he's not going “voice-to-voice” against Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, Schultz continues to feed his passion for sports and the great outdoors. He loves to fish, hunt and golf with his son David, a nationally rated golfer at Texas Christian University. He and Wendy, a psychiatric nurse, live in Fargo, and have six children.
INK: Is Talk radio as you practice it designed to entertain, inform, incite or all of the above?
ES: If you do a good radio show, people will find it, no matter what your political affiliation is. If you have all the ingredients of a good show - timely, topical subject matter, entertainment and relevant information - you move the show, and communicate well with the listeners. You've got to have the elements of a good radio show to make it work, no matter what side of the political dial you're on.
What's the first thing on your mind when you sit down in front of the microphone?
ES: The first thing I try to do is have fun. The two most important words in Talk radio are “you” and “your.” When listeners turn that dial to my show, they're saying, “What's in it for me?” and “What's in it for my family?” They want to enjoy the personality, they want to be entertained, they want relevant information. A good radio show must have a number of ingredients to succeed, and to get a broad base of listenership. The listener has to connect with the talk show host on some level: curiosity about the person, or flat-out passion for the person or dislike for the person. People appreciate that I go after the issues, and I'm an approachable, nice, relatable guy. What you hear is what you get.
You're now heard on more stations than any other progressive on the radio. Do you feel pressured to appeal to listeners in the blue states?
ES: If you go on the radio for political purposes only, you stand a good chance to fail. If you go on the radio because you want to have a good radio show, that's a different ballgame. I've never had a hard time getting ratings; I've never had a hard time doing good radio. It's just good imagination, and hard work. I think I do as good a radio show as anybody; I just happen to be a progressive.
Why is there a lingering perception that liberals - progressives - can't do Talk radio, and can't get advertisers to support them?
ES: We will all have our judgment day. It's called ratings and revenue. If you don't get 'em, you won't be around very long. If you can't make money, you're not going to be relevant in the business world. Sales solve a lot of problems. You must be advertiser-friendly, you must relate to the American people and the product. Progressives have bank accounts, they buy insurance, they buy cars, they sleep in beds. This narrow-minded view that liberals couldn't do Talk radio is ridiculous.
What are talk listeners looking for?
ES: Radio listeners are looking for a variety of things. They don't want to be bored to tears. They want a show to move. They want it to be informative, and they want to be involved. They want to be entertained.
Do they want political dogma?
ES: If you're going to get political, be strong in your convictions and know what you're talking about. You can't wing it. You have to play with passion, and form an opinion. Every American has an opinion on everything. If listeners hear what you think on an issue, they'll relate to your personality, and that will draw them back again. People like to have their thoughts confirmed or challenged.
Talk radio does more than that. Would you agree that hosts with a political standpoint have the ability to shape the course of this country ?
ES: The audio culture of America has changed so much. Talk radio affects local and state elections, and has a profound effect on federal elections. You can define the news cycle on Talk radio. You can frame the message on Talk radio.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were in Washington, DC, at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents' Dinner. I was sitting next to the person who coordinated all the radio for the recent Bush campaign. She said their goal the last five days before the election was to do 1,000 interviews on Talk radio. Think about that: 1,000 radio interviews, utilizing all 450 conservative Talk show hosts in the country, driving the message of security onto the American people down the stretch. Then, the narrow margin of victory was 3 million people. I can't help but think that radio had a profound affect on the outcome. I'm a firm believer that campaigns can be won or lost on Talk radio.
Look at the way people get their information today. When you and I were growing up, we sat home and watched the evening news. Families don't consume their information that way anymore.
Is that good or bad?
ES: It just is. People rely on audio. They hear a newscast, they hear a talk show host, they hear something on the Internet, they hear something on satellite. They iPod what they are looking for to get somebody's take on it. It's amazing how audio on the Internet is positioned for the future in the fast-paced lives of the American people. We have now have “media personalities.” There used to be reporters, commentators and anchormen. Now the media covers the media. It's so personality-driven that it can influence people. People say to themselves, “So-and-so said this, so it must be right.” Just as the bloggers came on fast down the stretch in this election cycle, I think Talk radio has done the same throughout the years.
Conservatives had a 15-year head start on Talk radio. Is it possible to catch up with them?
ES: One thing that concerns me about the progressive format is the label itself. Ed Schultz is a lot more than progressive Talk; that's why I call it The Ed Schultz Show. Why don't they label the Rush Limbaugh show or the Sean Hannity show as part of a conservative Talk format? I do The Ed Schultz Show, and I understand what people want: relatabilty. We're getting pigeon-holed as progressive Talk, and then when people turn it on, it's round-the-clock Bush-bashing. I don't believe that will cume a consistent audience, because it never has before. Offering redundancy in programming is a death knell. You'd better have a personality behind that microphone.
Glenn Beck: Premiere Radio Networks
Glenn Beck is not your typical conservative Talk radio host. First and foremost, he eschews the notion of political talk shows in general, observing that “it's frightening that we are becoming nothing but a political front for the left or the right, the Democrats or the Republicans.” Second, he freely admits to his past, in which he took some deep downturns before turning his life around through inner motivation and newfound faith. And third, he's not really into himself or his ego. “[Listeners] see in me a little of themselves: a guy who's struggling to be better every day,” he explains. “I'm a work in progress, and they can relate to me, because they're works in progress.”
A former Top 40 air personality, Beck entered the Talk format in 2001, and has grown his affiliate base to 175 stations nationwide via Premiere Radio networks. Millions of listeners are drawn to this modern-day storyteller. Based in Philadelphia, he's armed with a quick wit and an informed opinion - and he's not afraid to use a bit of shock radio to wake his audience up to the most pressing issues facing American society.
Beck started in radio at 13, when he won a local radio contest in which he was a DJ for an hour. The bug bit, and by age 18 he landed an on-air gig in Corpus Christi, Texas, as what arguably was the youngest morning jock in the U.S. His meteoric career took him to Top 40 morning shows in Baltimore, Houston, Phoenix, Washington and New Haven - and then his passion for radio, and life itself, he now admits, wore out. At age 30, he slipped into a pit of alcoholism and drug addiction. Although he had been accepted at Yale as a theology major, he lasted only one semester. He divorced his first wife, and was separated from his daughters, one of whom has cerebral palsy. Emotionally and financially decimated, he turned to a recovery program that he credits with saving his life.
Coming to terms with his past and staying sober provided a monumental shift in his life. He married Tania, and was baptized a Mormon in 2000. Turning his talent toward Talk radio, he moved his family to Tampa, where he inherited a lackluster talk show slot at WFLA-AM. Eighteen years later, Premiere signed him, and provided him the opportunity to go into national syndication. In January 2002, The Glenn Beck Program launched on 47 stations.
He also kept a promise to his daughters, and moved the national show to Philadelphia. airs weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon ET.
Is Talk radio as you practice it designed to entertain, inform, incite or all of the above?
GB: Entertainment encompasses “inform,” “incite” and more. But I really don't like the word “incite,” unless it's to incite passion or emotion. I don't do one of those shows in which they say “call your congressman.” Instead, I try to reach in and find the emotion, to incite the feelings of people. I want people to feel something, a range of emotions belly laughs, outrage and anger, sadness and sorrow but ultimately, it should be entertaining.
Many conservatives say that liberals don't have a sense of humor. What do you think?
GB: I'm for anything that brings extra bodies to the band, anything that will drive cume to Talk radio. Look at some of the people who have tried this in the past: Jerry Brown, Mario Cuomo, James Hightower. They're not radio people. I'm offended that people have such a low perception of radio that they think they can just put some attorney on the air, and he'll be great. Successful radio guys were radio people first. They know how to use the medium. They know the power of painting a picture. They know comedic radio timing, which is not the same as comedy club timing. It's different on-air; if you're entertaining, and know how to manipulate this medium, you'll be successful.
Isn't there at least one liberal talk show host whom you consider a good entertainer?
GB: The one liberal talk show host who kicks butt is Howard Stern, and the reason he stomps butt in market after market is because he is an entertainer first. He happens to have liberal views and values, but he's entertaining. He's not calling people to action. He's reflecting their values.
From your experience, what are Talk listeners are looking for? What do they want from a host?
GB: I can't tell you what they're looking for, but I can tell you what they find on my show. My show reflects their values, but we may also disagree. Maybe they're more conservative or more liberal than I am. What they find is entertainment without boob jokes. They find information that is relevant outside the Beltway. Sometimes we do go inside the Beltway, but only because it's relevant to somebody's life outside Washington. We present it in an entertaining fashion. That's what they find, and that's why they stay. They see in me a little of themselves: a guy who's struggling to be better every day. I'm a work in progress, and they can relate to me, because they're works in progress. If they don't like me, I'm okay with that. I don't expect everybody to like me. I'm not out to change the entire world.
How do you approach the callers who take issue with something you say?
GB: It's much more fun when somebody disagrees with me. They're the callers who get on the air first. I'm really uncomfortable when someone gets on the air and compliments me. Those are some of the worst seconds of radio. That's just self-serving stuff. Variety is the spice of life.
What mix of news, ideology, comment, listener input, humor and shtick do you need to make Talk radio work?
GB: I go with my gut every day. We try to balance the show linearly, so if you're listening at a certain time one day, you don't hear the same kind of stuff the next day. My show is balanced on the theory of my Thanksgiving dinner table. I've never sat down at the dinner table with people who have decided in advance what they are going to talk about, and then said, “We're not going to talk about these issues because that's not what the table is about.” At my Thanksgiving table, you laugh, you cry, you talk politics, you talk religion, you talk about what was on television last night, you talk about an upcoming movie, sex - all of it. That's what we do.
Don't most of your listeners know they're going to find someone who sits on the same side of the political fence as they do?
GB: It's interesting that the perception of Talk radio is that we are all political. Shouldn't we be entertainers? Isn't that what we're supposed to be doing? It's frightening to me that we are becoming nothing but a political front for the left or the right, the Democrats or the Republicans. That is the recipe for doom in this format. We've got to stop it.
How do you stop it?
GB: You can stop it with diversity. Progressive radio is good for us, because it offers diversity. We must reach out to the talents in radio who understand there is more to life than politics, and that our listeners are three-dimensional human beings. I don't want to sit at a dinner table with the guy who talks only politics or moral issues. I'd hang myself by the time the soup arrived. Most listeners are like that.
Getting back to your Thanksgiving dinner table analogy: Would you pull an outrageous stunt in front of your holiday guests like announcing that you're airing an abortion live on your show, or your going to kill a puppy on-air.
GB: My dad is 77, and he doesn't get most of the show. He'll say, “I just don't understand - you make such great points, but then you follow them with a comedy bit, or a stunt.” When he says that, I wear it as a stripe on my arm. If you're shooting for a 50-plus audience, it's important to stay away from these things. But if you want to make sure you're driving 30- and 40-year-olds in -a lot of college kids are fans of the show - you must be unconventional. I can go on and on about Terri Schiavo, but until I threaten to kill a puppy-dog on the air, and the activists come out of the woodwork to save a cartoon puppy dog, they don't really feel my point.
Does the audience really need to be shocked into action?
GB: The problem is that the American youth- those 40 and below - don't relate to traditional Talk radio as deeply as the upper-end does. They were raised on MTV, so everything has to be delivered in a very fast-paced package. If it sounds too stodgy, it's not for them. They've also been desensitized to a lot of what they see and hear. This generation doesn't have the same sensibilities as my father does. Look at the comedy of the 1960s with Phyllis Diller, compared with the comedy of Chris Rock today. Phyllis Diller was cutting edge and outrageous in the '60s. We have gone through a massive transformation. If you want to get the younger audience, you have to move with them. Again, my object is to entertain and inform in a relevant way. To do that today, you have to push some buttons.
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