Making a Run For It: Progressive Talker Stephanie Miller Takes Aim At Conservative Rivals, Misconceptions About Liberal Radio, And The White House (10/08/07)
By Editor-In-Chief Joe Howard
Stephanie Miller was born into a political family, so it might seem natural that a life immersed in politics was her destiny. To be sure, she’s making waves as one of radio’s leading progressive Talk hosts. But neither politics — nor radio — was her first love. “I thought I was going to be Carol Burnett, and then all of my dreams died,” she jokes. “That’s how you end up in radio.”
The real story isn’t quite that bleak; she did stand-up for years, and a stint doing comedy bits on a station in her hometown of Buffalo, NY, eventually led to a regular on-air gig. With that, a radio career was born. While her show has a left-leaning political bent, Miller insists her primary focus is entertainment, regardless of her listeners’ political feelings.
As for her own politics, she says they’ve evolved over time, and shouldn’t be construed as a rebellion against her father’s Republican politics. William Miller was Barry Goldwater’s vice presidential running mate in the 1964 presidential race. But Miller believes the politics of her father and Goldwater’s Republican party are far removed from today’s GOP, and to prove it, she’s mounting a presidential “campaign” of her own with Goldwater’s granddaughter, filmmaker CeCe Goldwater.
“We went on a listening tour and most people told us not to run — but we didn’t listen. We’re doing it anyway,” Miller says. “It’s obviously a joke, but it makes the point that both her film and my radio show make: This Bush administration and this Republican party are not Goldwater’s party anymore.” In fact, she believes she and her late father would probably be on the same side of many issues facing the country today. “I can’t say that we’d agree on every issue, but we might agree on a lot more than you think.”
Radio Ink: We hear you and CeCe Goldwater are entering the presidential race. Tell us about the Goldwater/Miller ’08 White House campaign.
Stephanie Miller: CeCe Goldwater and I — she’s Barry Goldwater’s granddaughter — are running for president and vice president as a cheap publicity stunt to promote my radio show and her HBO film. We already have our taglines ready: “Goldwater/Miller 08: Family name, no skills, just like W.” And “Goldwater/Miller 08: Better late than never.”
Another one is “Ex Republican Girls Gone Wild.” It’s obviously a joke, but it makes the point that both her film and my radio show make; This Bush administration and this Republican party is not Goldwater’s party anymore. Hillary Clinton even quoted Goldwater on the campaign trail when she used his line about gays in the miliarty; “You don’t have to be straight, you just have to shoot straight.” She was a Goldwater girl in 1964.
We went on a listening tour and most people told us not to run — but we didn’t listen. We’re doing it anyway. We’ll have Ask Goldwater/Miller on the radio show every week as a feature, and we’re letting the people help us with the platform: number one, because we’re a campaign of the people; and number two, because we’re too lazy to come up with our own position. We’ll probably do a couple of events, and we’re going to mimic some of the actual campaigns. If you’ve heard the show, my listeners submit ridiculous songs and jingles, so we’re going to ask for campaign songs and campaign jingles and YouTube stuff. You know what I say? We’re saving America one fart joke at a time. That’s what I’m doing.
RI: Would you ever seriously consider running for public office?
SM: Oh God, no, are you kidding? Not in this YouTube universe. Dear God, there’s too many hours of embarrassing audio and video tape on me. I have no naked pictures floating around, but not because I wouldn’t do it; it’s just that no one has ever asked.
RI: Do you think your father would support the liberal views you hold today?
SM: I can’t say that we’d agree on every issue, but we might agree on a lot more than you think. This is not Barry Goldwater’s party. And my dad passed away in 1983 when I was around 21, so I wasn’t really political yet. My politics are an evolution over time rather than some kind of rebellion. This wasn’t a reaction to him. I remember the Pat Buchanan speech at one Republican convention being a turning point; I thought, God, when did my dad’s party get so mean-spirited?
CeCe’s film, which is called, “Mr. Conservative: Goldwater on Goldwater” is about Barry Goldwater, of course, but it makes the hilarious point that he’s this liberal icon today. Hillary is in it, and so is Al Franken. When Goldwater was in the Senate in the 80s he was pro choice, pro gay rights, and talked about the undue influence of the religious right on the Republican party.
RI: Do you feel that the nation is as divided as so many believe it is today?
SM: Actually, not as much anymore. I think more people are on our side now. Literally 70 percent of the American people are against this war and against this president. Not only did the democrats take back Congress, but most people think they have a pretty good shot at the White House. This administration is not even good on Republican issues! Republicans are the ones that killed immigration reform. I look at my dad and Barry, and they were big Constitution guys. I can’t imagine what they think about warrant-less wire tapping and Gitmo and Abu Ghraib. My dad was a prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials; they had to be sure that we were fair to the Nazis. This administration is the first in history that thinks, no, no, no, this is different than ever before. We’ve been in Iraq longer than WWII. I think a lot of people are disgusted with this administration.
RI: You did stand-up comedy earlier in your career. How did you find your way from comedy to radio?
SM: I thought I was going to be Carol Burnett, and then all of my dreams died. That’s how you end up in radio. The End. I went to USC and got a degree in theater, which could get me a job in any 7-11 in the country.
I got into radio, like most of us did, completely by accident. I started doing comedy bits on a station in my hometown of Buffalo, and one thing led to another. I’ve gone back and forth between television and radio, but radio really is my first love; I think creatively it’s the most free form of expression. There’s too many people around to screw it up in television; in radio, we’re perfectly capable of screwing it up on our own.
RI: Tell us about your stint doing the morning shift on MSNBC after Imus in the Morning was canceled.
SM: To be quite honest, I don’t think they ever had any intention of doing a radio show after Imus. It was just too radioactive, especially in this YouTube universe. If you take 10 seconds of any show and send it to the right groups, you could get that person fired. That’s what was a little scary about the Imus thing. And I think the other thing was just financial; I knew going in they were probably going to go with somebody already under contract there, which was Joe Scarborough. And he’s just doing a TV show, really. It was great fun, but I think they just had to fill the spot until they figured out how to do the musical chairs.
RI: Talk about the differences in preparing for a TV show versus a radio show. What do you do differently for radio?
SM: For radio, I work 24 hours a day to fill three hours a day. We do a lot of original comedy; we don’t really do topics, we don’t repeat stories. There is entirely too much news; if news could just stop, I could actually have a life. I’m online, on TV all day long pulling material and reading it, writing, and getting ready for the next day. TV is so much more condensed. You have a teleprompter, and are a lot more prepared than radio. In radio you have to leave room for spontaneity, whereas in television they tend to suck all the spontaneity out of it if they possibly can.
RI: How do you deal with, as you said, this YouTube world, where you have to be so careful about everything you say?
SM: It’s become a running feature on the show; we get more hate letters from what we call humorless, stick-up-the-butt liberals than we do from right wingers. We’re amazed that our show appeals to anybody because it is too liberal for conservatives and too politically incorrect for liberals. Theoretically, it should appeal to absolutely nobody, but somehow we seem to have done OK.
RI: So what’s bringing listeners to the show?
SM: I can’t tell you how many calls or e-mails start with, “I don’t agree with anything you say politically, I’m a right winger, but I love your show because it makes me laugh.” In the end, who cares why they are listening? They love you, they hate you, they want to hear what you’re gonna say next. I think most liberals have a good sense of humor, but we have a running joke about liberals who are very politically correct. And that’s a little tough with a comedy show, because if you don’t offend anybody, you’re not doing it right.
RI: What are some of your secrets for connecting with and maintaining an audience?
SM: Wow, I don’t know if I can really say. I can only talk about what I think is funny, what strikes me as funny in the news. We talk about everything that’s going on; we don’t just do politics, we talk about pop culture, entertainment. We filter the world through us; people want to know our point of view on whatever the story is, so I try to make that as funny and entertaining as I can.
RI: How do you feel the news networks are doing?
SM: Well, look at how well Keith Olberman is doing. Is it because he’s more in line politically with most American’s now on Bush and this war, or is it because he has a great show? Could be a little of both. The bottom line is that it is entertainment. I think that people who have a strong point view, whether it’s Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olberman, tend to do the best. In that sense, I think TV is becoming a little more like Talk radio; it’s opinionated. No one would say anything if they would just call it Fox Opinion Channel; it’s not news. It’s entertaining, you’ve got to give them credit, but it’s not news.
RI: Since you’ve opened the discussion of bias in news, do you think that CNN leans as left as they are charged with leaning?
SM: Oh, God no. The thing that I think is a myth is the liberal media. The rest of the media were as big cheerleaders in the lead up to the war as Fox was. Everybody was afraid to be called un-patriotic. I don’t get that. There are right wingers on MSNBC; Fox always talks about how liberal MSNBC is, but they have Joe Scarborough, a conservative; Tucker Carlson, a conservative; and they have more. Keith Olberman is the liberal, if you’re gonna look at it that way. But I also feel like Keith Olberman takes on Democrats when they deserve it.
RI: You don’t see bias on CNN, but conservatives probably don’t see bias on Fox News Channel. In both cases, is it possible audience perception is contributing to these claims? Does filtration have something to do with it?
SM: I suppose. The premise is that you need Fox News because the rest of the media is biased, but it makes me laugh. Even Chris Matthews sometimes does right-wing talking points. I don’t get it; I don’t see where it leans left. As somebody once said, that facts tend to have a well known liberal bias. What they mean is that they tend to report on all of the disastrous news out of the Bush administration, including the Iraq War.
RI: Do you think there is anything missing on the Talk radio dial right now?
SM: Me on a million stations! The one thing that is frustrating for us on the progressive side is that there’s maybe 60 progressive stations in the whole country. Rush Limbaugh is on 600, so they won’t put us on the other stations. That’s been a little frustrating, particularly for people like me and Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes and people who have been doing this for 20 years — and doing very well in the ratings on right-wing stations. I’m on with Dr. Laura and Bill O’Reilly, I was number one in my first ratings book, and yet I can’t get on any more stations. That’s frustrating. And the fact that they keep putting up lies on right-wing stations that liberal radio has failed, when there are shows like mine that are beating the right-wing show on my time slot in a lot of markets – in the markets I can get on. Here in L.A., I have quadruple the ratings of the right-wing show in my time slot, the national show.
They keep saying liberals want the Fairness Doctrine because they can’t compete and liberal radio has failed. The airwaves don’t belong to me or Sean Hannity, they belong to the public. In a country that is evenly divided or, even more on our side these days, how is that fair? I don’t know that the Fairness Doctrine is the way to address it. I just talked to the Democratic senators in Washington about this. It’s certainly not fair to have entertaining shows that are getting ratings, whatever their political bent is, not be able to get stations. People want to hear the talking points on either side. I get a lot of heat for picking on Hillary — we make fun of everybody — but I always say we’re a comedy show that happens to be hosted by a progressive. We’re just trying to be an entertaining morning show; sometimes we’re not even talking about politics.
RI: But radio is a business, so if progressive shows are generating ratings, it would seem station owners would want to add them. Given that, why can’t progressive talkers pick up more stations?
SM: Progressive Talk on one hand has created a place for us, and yet in some ways I feel like it’s kind of ghetto-ized radio a little. The sentiment is that we belong on these lower lot stations that get no promotion because it’s new. The infrastructure for conservative Talk has been in place for 20 years. We have enough success stories in enough places that I feel like it should expand. In Madison, Wisconsin, we were the number one Talk station in the market, and Clear Channel was going to flip it to sports because they said they couldn’t sell it. There was such an outcry from the public that they changed their mind and got some new salespeople, and they’re doing fine now. How can you not sell the number one station in a market? In Columbus, Ohio, they flipped a progressive station to right wing and the ratings went down 60 percent. They’re last in the market now. Is that easier to sell?
Stories like that are getting the Democratic senators’ attention. Right after Howard Dean credited progressive radio partially with the 2006 election, they shut down every progressive station in Ohio. Certainly that was one of the big swing states in the last election. I don’t know how the senators or maybe a democratic White House will address it, but I think they’re concerned with the imbalance. John Podesta’s Center for American Progress published a report, “The Structural Imbalance of Political Talk Radio,” that says literally 9 percent of the stations are progressive. How is that fair? And the right-wing talking point that we can’t compete, we don’t get ratings, is patently untrue.
RI: Is it the fault of the sales reps or the management?
SM: I don’t know. In many cases, as I said, the progressive stations are not on strong signals, and they’re not getting any kind of emotional support or sales support. I think they have to actually get behind the format in the places where we are on a decent signal. We’re doing great in a lot of markets. And also, they absolutely have to get salespeople who know how to sell it. I think a lot of times, it’s been the afterthought: You want this, this, and this — and oh, we have this little progressive buy. It needs to get the same support that right-wing radio gets in terms of signals and promotion and sales staff. A lot of times these progressive stations have one person on staff. And why do you have to have all conservative or all progressive on one station? My show does very well on right-wing stations. It’s entertainment, it’s not talking points. Rush Limbaugh is successful because he’s a great entertainer. It’s a myth that every right-wing host is as successful as Rush. That’s not true. You have to be more than just right wing to be successful in radio. There’s been a bunch of conservative radio shows cancelled, too. And by the way, it’s pretty hard to get cancelled because there’s about six billion stations they can be on. All people are asking for is fairness. The people who can compete and get ratings as entertainers have as much right to be on the radio as anybody else.
RI: Are you spreading your message anywhere on TV right now?
SM: I’m on a lot of shows; Larry King, Paula Zahn, Lou Dobbs, Hannity and Colmes. I shot a pilot for CNN. MSNBC has had interest, but you never know what’s going to happen with TV. TV is not exactly the same as radio; there has to be an opening, so whether that ever happens again, I don’t know. But I’m having a ball doing radio. I don’t. frankly, really care if I do TV again full time. I love radio. TV is just so flaky; in fact I fired my agents a couple of years ago, and just focused on radio. You can keep chasing TV forever, but if you focus on radio and have the success there, then TV generally pays attention too.
RI: Let’s talk about the current presidential candidates. Who are you supporting?
SM: I’m for Obama, but I’m a flip-flopper, so you never know. If Hillary gets the nomination, I will disavow any knowledge of this conversation and destroy all the audio tape from my radio show.
RI: With Hillary widely considered the frontrunner, does Obama have a legitimate shot at getting the nomination?
SM: I think so. I think many of us have a feeling that the nomination is done, decided, but I’d like to feel like there is a national contest. When I saw Obama’s speech at the convention, I got chills; I thought, “Oh my God, this is our first black president.” I think he has that same thing Bill Clinton does; the ability to speak and to inspire and uplift people. That’s not to say that Hillary wouldn’t be a good president; I just can’t help that I’m excited by the Obama candidacy. Of course everybody is speculating now it’s gonna be a Clinton/Obama ticket. Who knows?
RI: Things have been touchy between them. Is there a reasonable possibility they can bury the hatchet and work together?
SM: I think so. But say it were Obama and Giuliani — it really is the politics of hope against the politics of fear. If you want more of this Bush administration, fear mongering, like somebody said: Giuliani is running for president of 9/11. With Hillary, I think there is a lot of fear on the Democratic side that the Republicans have had so many years to demonize her. It’s the electability thing and the likeability things. It may not be fair, and it may be a female thing, but it’s just harder for a woman. If she’s soft then she’s too soft, and if she’s strong then she’s a bitch. But it would be tough for any first woman President. If she and Obama could run together it would be exciting and historic and all that.
RI: Do you think Giuliani will get the nomination?
SM: It’s so far out, but if I had to guess now, I’d have to say it would be Giuliani. But boy, won’t that be a turnaround for the family values party?
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