ED SCHULTZ may be the most interesting radio voice to come out of the upper Midwest since Garrison Keillor, with whom he shares almost nothing except a throbbing aversion to George W. Bush. From a station in Fargo, N.D., the loud and hearty, meat-eating Democrat has attracted a growing national following of liberals, progressives, lapsed Republicans and other talk-radio listeners who hear in the rumble and flow of Schultz's impassioned populism a sound unlike any other on the AM dial.
Carried live in Los Angeles on KTLK (1150) weekdays, noon to 3 p.m., and on roughly 100 other stations across the country, "The Ed Schultz Show" is a somewhat rowdy town hall meeting of the air, overseen by Big Eddie, as he is known in North Dakota -- in reference to his 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame. Part town crier, part lay minister and every inch a performer, Schultz regularly lights a fire at the feet of the current administration while giving succor to the disgruntled and disenfranchised, which these days include all manner of registered Democrats and "lefties," a term he uses to describe himself.
But he is hardly the sort of "lefty" conjured by the popular right-wing talk radio opposition represented by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Although carried locally on the same station that is home to Al Franken's upstart liberal Air America network, Schultz's style has little in common with either Franken's studied East Coast ironies or the decorous objectivity of NPR, where Keillor got his start from St. Paul.
"I'm a commercial-radio guy," Schultz said unapologetically during a recent visit to Los Angeles, part of a West Coast road trip in which he's done the show from Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Ore., and the studios of KTLK in Burbank. "And I'm probably more like a hard line-drive to left-center."
Impulsive by nature, Schultz is more inclined to leap on breaking stories and chew on a hot topic than dissect issues in depth with a panel of experts.
"He's proving that liberal radio can work," says Michael Harrison, the editor of Talkers magazine, the industry publication that recently ranked Schultz No. 13 overall in its Heavy 100 list of national and local talk-show hosts based on ratings as well as talent, buzz and influence. Howard Stern was No. 1 and Rush Limbaugh No. 2. Al Franken came in at No. 18.
A former college quarterback (Moorhead State in Minnesota) who began his career in Fargo as a TV and radio sportscaster, the 51-year-old Shultz offers relief from his sharp questioning of Bush's foreign and domestic policies and other weighty matters by digressing about hunting and fishing, sporting events, cooking and the habits of his beloved black Lab, Buck. Easy to laugh, he comes across at times as an educated good ol' boy, but a good ol' boy who's angry at what he believes to be the hijacking of our democracy by the rich and corporate.
While fielding calls from listeners, he speaks up for unions, public schools, farmers, teachers, longshoremen, veterans, minorities and others who've never seen the inside of a stretch limousine. And he's become a kind of tough-love coach for the Democratic Party, busting the congressional leadership for lack of courage and recently shaming top Democratic senators who have been on his program for their failure to support Wisconsin Sen. Russell D. Feingold's resolution to censure the president.
"You don't think this hasn't got the righties with their underwear up their crack?" he blurted in typical Big Eddie candor this week about the censure proposal.
"Wait a second!" he is apt to shout when a caller strays into fuzzy territory. But he said he doesn't screen calls and allows dissenters to have their say. "I don't think it's bad to let a caller have a piece of you now and then," Schultz said. "I don't know everything."
When a caller from Chicago last week tried to make the case that warrantless wiretaps are essential to keeping the nation safe, Schultz indulged him for a bit before declaiming, "You want to change America! You're willing to follow the king!"
Then he was on to a commercial break. "Lots more coming your way, folks, on 'The Ed Schultz Show,' " he sang out. "Sen. Barbara Boxer to join us later."
BOXER'S voice is often heard on the program, as are the voices of other ranking Democrats such as Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa), Harry Reid (Nevada), Patrick J. Leahy (Vermont) and Feingold in short, to-the-point interviews.
The show, in fact, was born three years ago with $800,000 in seed money raised by Senate Democrats looking for someone to push back against the relentless attacks from Limbaugh and other conservative talkers on then-minority leader Tom Daschle. Jim Hightower, Mario Cuomo, Gary Hart and other noted liberals had failed to crack the talk-radio format, which seemed destined to be dominated by conservatives. When the search committee turned up Schultz, he offered a theory why the others had fizzled.