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

Ed Schultz, who anchors MSNBC's prime 8 p.m. time slot, has been raising his ratings while talking about the issues of the poor and middle class working people.

February 16, 2012|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Ed Schultz is presenting himself as the one true advocate for the working man. On the air and in promotional spots, he reminds viewers that hes standing up for the unemployed and the middle class.
Ed Schultz is presenting himself as the one true advocate for the working… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from New York —  

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."

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