Ed Schultz is one of the most-listened-to progressive radio talk show hosts on the air in America today and a burgeoning presence in the cable news/talk television scene. His daily radio show syndicated by Dial Global Radio Networks –– now in its eighth year –– broadcasts live weekdays from New York City 12:00 noon to 3:00 pm ET on more than 100 affiliates across the country. In addition, he hosts a prime time 10:00 pm ET weekday cable television program (Monday through Thursday) on MSNBC. The Talkers Interview with Ed Schultz was conducted by Michael Harrison.
TALKERS: On behalf of all of us at TALKERS who’ve been watching your career for years, all the way back to Fargo, congratulations on all the multi-media success that you’ve been having. How’s life going for you these days?
ES: Well, it’s pretty intense, Michael, and it’s been a long run. We start our ninth year in January and we’re awfully excited about the fact that we were able to go through one of the toughest economic times in the history of the country. I have all the same team members –– nobody lost their benefits, nobody lost their wages. And we have survived and I’m very proud of that because it’s all about the business model. When we started back in 2004, Twitter wasn’t around. Facebook wasn’t around. I think the internet interaction presence wasn’t anywhere near what it is today. Podcasting wasn’t around. So there’s been so many changes since we started and I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to do all the things we need to do to make sure our sponsors get the kind of response they’re looking for. And that really is the name of the game. At the end of the day, we’re selling a commercial. At the end of the day we have to put a product out there that people are going to be proud of and also desirable to be a part of. Obviously, I never would have gotten the opportunity on MSNBC had I not done a syndicated radio show. It’s tough doing three hours of radio a day, then of course doing the television show at 10:00 at night Eastern Time. You know, Michael, it’s proven that you can do it. It’s a funny instinct that’s inside us as broadcasters that you don’t give up; you can’t give up. You accept every challenge you can and you make the most of it. It’s been a great ride. I wouldn’t change a thing.
TALKERS: Let’s go back a bit for those who are new to Ed Schultz. You weren’t always a “liberal,” were you?
ES: No. My transition started back in 1998. Obviously, my wife had a huge impact on opening my eyes to other things in the world. The country was shifting and I sensed the country was shifting from being out with the public. And my priority list had changed. I don’t think you roll out of bed one day and say, “Gosh, I’m a liberal!” I think you, as I did, go through a number of grass roots experiences. You go through a number of events –– a continual open mind of covering stories that bring you to a conclusion of what you think is best for the country. So, rigid thinkers don’t make it in talk radio. I think we have to be not only innovative in our business but we have to be open and innovative in how we see complex problems today and having the ability to express that on the air everyday is a real privilege.
TALKERS: But was there a specific event or situation that propelled the evolution?
ES: When I was in the Midwest broadcasting I went through the farm crisis, the price crisis, going to farm auctions and seeing generations of families that have been together for three or four generations being lost. Education sure has its challenges in rural America. The environmental issues and a bunch of other problems just all added up to bring me to a point where I had a philosophical change in how I thought the country should be run and how all of it was coming together. As broadcasters, it’s not hard for us to step up and speak our piece.
TALKERS: One of the difficult things that talk show hosts on commercial political talk radio and television have to constantly negotiate is their own point of view, their own feelings, their own take versus the positioning of the medium for which they are employed. If you’re a syndicated host you have to deal with as many as a hundred or more program directors who have their own ideas about what the station’s political position should be because politics is currently a major component of station and network stationality or branding. This is certainly true of the cable television news/talk networks. The clearest examples: Fox with the conservative view and MSNBC has built a reputation of being the liberal view. How do you deal with negotiating your own personal feelings –– the nuances –– versus pleasing the programmers and the executives either at MSNBC or at all those radio stations that carry you?
ES: You know, Michael, I’ve found over the years that the best path to take is your own. You’re not going to please everybody. You have to be strong in your convictions. You have to be willing to express what you believe in, give a strong take and understand that you’re in a fishbowl and there are going to be some folks that differ with you. I’m going through that right now, now that you bring that up. Obama supporters listen to liberal talk radio. And I am struggling with the president from the standpoint that he’s not being aggressive enough. I think he’s gone far enough in trying to negotiate the position on what he believes in and I’m somewhat critical of President Obama right now. And that infuriates some people on the left who are absolute, dyed-in-the-wool staunch supporters of the president no matter what he does. They’re listeners. But I think they’re wrong in their assessment of where we have to go as a progressive movement in America. In the midst of all of that we have to be up tempo, we have to be entertaining, we have to be compelling, we have to be strong and I think people who are in radio –– program directors, I think, have a pretty good grip on what a host goes through. If you dismiss your audience, then of course you’ll run into trouble. If you respect your audience you won’t have problems in differing with them and I think that’s one of the reasons why progressive talk, where it’s been tried, has been successful because conservatives are people too. Conservatives call my show and say, “I like to hear both sides and I like to get your take on it Ed. But I do disagree with you here and I want to get your thoughts on it.” We end up having a conversation and it sometimes is a little rough but oftentimes it’s very negotiable. I’ve never been told what to say on MSNBC. I’ve never been told what to say on my radio show. That’s a hell of a freedom. But with it goes the responsibility that you have your facts straight –– if there is a mistake you have to correct it. You can’t make up your own set of rules, your own set of facts. And you can give all the opinion you want in a respectful manner. In answer to your question, I really haven’t had a hard time worrying about what the program director in a certain city or a certain station has. Just be Ed. If you’re Ed, if these are your beliefs, then go for it. That’s how I’ve always run my show.
TALKERS: You’re one of a handful of people who are able to transcend the differences between audio-only broadcasting –– meaning radio –– and appearing on television. They’re so different even though it’s the same subject matter, the same voice –– and in many cases the same audience. The psychology and media theory of radio and television are quite different and often radio people don’t make the transition to TV and TV people –– even more so –– don’t make it to radio. As a guy who started in radio prior to being a TV performer, have the television experts at MSNBC been helpful to you? Do they coach you? Have they taught you things to make it more comfortable to be a television personality as well as a radio one?
ES: Well, one of the biggest concerns they had at MSNBC was they would script me too much. They want me to be Ed the personality. They know I can communicate. Just as talk radio is about emotion and passion, cable TV is that as well. They want Ed the personality. They want Ed the person who cares about the country and people to be that program. And, you can script yourself into being a totally different personality on television than you are on radio. Radio is much more unrestricted, much more freewheeling. You have time. The time constraints on television make it very challenging that what I really have to say in four minutes I have to cut down and say it in 90 seconds and that’s where the help comes in from the producers. And still being able to maintain and communicate your thoughts on where you stand on an issue. So, it’s a challenge. There’s no doubt. The rate of cable hosts failing is very high and I went into it doing the six o’clock hour knowing that the higher you go up the harder you fall. But just be myself, be Ed and go at it and work hard and understand there’ll be a lot of criticism if I don’t make it and there’ll probably be very few accolades if I do. But that’s what drives me to compete, to make a difference. And I enjoy trying hard. I enjoy putting a full effort into things because it always makes it a heck of a lot better.
TALKERS: You were once a professional football player which, of course, is competitive and requires courage and strategy. And I understand, I just found this out recently, that in 1970 you had your own Rosa Parks-type experience. Could you tell us about it?
ES: I guess I’ve never had anybody put it to me that way. I guess it was. I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, went to high school and it was a time of forced busing for racial equality and I was the captain of a predominantly black football team. We had a great year. We were undefeated and in the playoffs and we always traveled on one bus to all the games. But when we went to the playoffs, for some reason, that night they showed up with two yellow buses and all the white kids got on one bus and all the black players got on another bus. I was the quarterback of the team and traditionally the last one out of the locker room. I got out and there were two buses and our team just got segregated after the great year that we had. I got on the bus with the brothers. I got on with the black players because I knew it was the right thing to do. My family was very involved with current events and watching the news at the dinner table –– my mother was a high school English teacher and we always paid attention to current events. In junior high and high school integration was a big story. When I came out of that locker room I was just shocked. I got on the bus with the black players but it affected our team that night. We didn’t play well and we lost. And I honestly believe that bus ride had everything to do with how poorly we played which was so uncharacteristic of our team. It was an eye-opener for me. No matter how good we try to make things right there are always going to be those divisions. I didn’t want to be a part of division, I wanted to be a part of union. I wanted to be a part of making things better and even at 18 years old maybe that was a little bit too pure at the time but that was my instinct.
TALKERS: The image that is projected on the screen and out the speakers sometimes is different than what a person’s really like. You’re one of those guys, to use the term, you “walk the walk” as well as talk the talk. You were very involved in helping people after Katrina devastated the Gulf Region. I don’t want to embarrass you but I think this story should be told.
ES: I was just so moved by the pictures and the strife. And I did not have a television show at the time –– I just had the Ed Schultz radio show. But I wanted to do something. First of all, I wanted to see what had happened first-hand because I thought it would be a real important human experience. Our country hadn’t been through this kind of devastation since, of course, 9/11 but this was a real disruption in a huge proportion for a lot of American families and obviously, the response was not what it could have been. So, we started a fund on the radio and raised thousands of dollars to help families out. We called it “direct response.” I thought we were only going to raise so much money because our media profile was only so big at the time. I decided, let’s get down on the ground level and really help a family. Let’s help, maybe, two families. Let’s just do something. So, with the response of our audience raising some money, we tied in with a church just outside New Orleans –– because that’s where a lot of people were going, they were exiting the city and going to these small towns and finding a roof at a church. We got a hold of a church down there and the church was packed. We spoke to the pastor and I asked him if anybody would like to come to North Dakota –– anybody who would like a chance to start over. He asked if anybody wanted to go to North Dakota and this man and his family stood up. And so we identified about eight people who were really ready to move and I sent a jet down there from Fargo. A friend of mine, Toby MacPherson, had a Citation 500. We flew down and picked them up. I had been down there previously doing a few radio shows in Gulfport, Mississippi. We were met at the Fargo Airport by about 100 people from the city who wanted to help. And we got them an apartment, we got them a washing machine, we got them clothes, we got them a car, and we enrolled one of the girls in North Dakota State University. And then they had friends and they told them, “Hey these people in Fargo really want to help out –– this radio host Ed Schultz really wants to help out. That led to us helping a single mom with three kids. At the end of the day, there were about 17 people that we helped. On a small scale, when you look at the total devastation of New Orleans and what happened, that’s very small –– 17 people. But we did something. We did something to help somebody. I think as broadcasters we are obligated to do things like that. It was one of the fun things and one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done as a broadcaster. Those people have since left Fargo and relocated back to Louisiana. And they were very grateful. I’ll never forget a fellow named Larry. He was a diesel mechanic who worked for the city of New Orleans on the diesel bus engines. We got him a job in Fargo in the diesel shop and he was there for about six months and he decided it was time for him to go home because he had lost his home in the 9th Ward. He had to get back to deal with the insurance issues. But we did something, Michael. I wished we could have helped 5,000 people. But we helped 17 or 18 people.
TALKERS: I understand you’re still involved in New Orleans, you’re organizing a free health care clinic for the uninsured, could you tell us about that?
ES: We are. I got involved in this last year with MSNBC going to the different free health clinics across America –– there were seven of them last year and I think I went to five of them. It’s a real eye-opening experience. It’s not a sound bite on TV, it’s not a piece of copy you read in front of a camera. When you go to these free health care clinics you see people who have not seen a doctor in five or six years. You see people who’ve never been to a dentist. You see people who are working two jobs, don’t have insurance and on their lunch hour they come to see a doctor at this free clinic and they find out that they have hypertension, high blood pressure, they need help, they may have a blood disorder. People who find out they have cancer. It is absolutely unbelievable what you see at these free health care clinics. And they’re not all unemployed people, as I said. I think it’s a story that we need to continue to tell in America. And of course, we’re helping people. And it’s all made possible by the people who watch the programs and respond. The National Association of Free Health Clinics –– they have been outstanding to work with. They are very passionate. All they want to do is help people and correct what they think is wrong in America and try to make it better.
TALKERS: I have always been impressed, Ed –– all the way back to your local days in Fargo –– by what a hard worker you are.
ES: Oh yeah…it fills up my day. I end up working 13-hour days but I enjoy it. So, I haven’t been able to do more of the things I want to do but Michael, I’ve always been one to, 1) treat our employees right and 2) try to make a difference and also, to give back. Obviously at MSNBC I’ve had some good industry fortune and this year I’m going to donate $100,000 to the American Cancer Society. One of the stories out there is that donations in this tough economy are down. Especially when it comes to funding research and development –– those dollars are down with a lot of these organizations that need money. I’m trying to do my little part and I can’t spend all the time that I want to spend in the volunteer arena but my wife and I are going to donate $100,000 this year to the American Cancer Society. I’ve had some friends who’ve had cancer and passed on and I’ve seen people at these free health care clinics, they have cancer and they have no money and they haven’t had insurance for 10 years. The success I’ve had, I often ask, “Why me? Why have I been afforded this path in life and what can I do to give back?” My dad always used to say, “Don’t be a bum, give something back.” When I was little kid I didn’t know what that meant but I know what that means now!
TALKERS: You’re bringing up a point that is very important. One of the things I think a lot of the progressive news/talkers miss is that it’s not just a matter of rich people talking to other rich people about how to help the poor. The idea that half the country is Republican and half the country is Democrat so the constantly asked question “why doesn’t half the country listen to progressive talkers?” doesn’t take this point into consideration. If progressive radio stopped worrying so much about how bad conservative radio is and just went out there and served the interest of the people that need progressive thinking, it might actually develop a big following and a loyal constituency. And what you’re saying, in my opinion, is the key to it.
ES: Well, I think you live your life on the radio show. I think you make sure that you come to the microphone with an unvarnished presentation of who you are and what you believe in and you live it out. That’s the exciting part of it. You get to share things with your audience and your audience responds and you end up having a personal relationship with the listeners. I really believe that. I’ve never worried about ratings, I’ve never worried about the number of stations, I’ve always thought, “Okay, what about the listeners? Do they know we care about them? Do they know we appreciate them? Do they know that issues that are important to them are important to us?” That’s always been my philosophy and I realize there are a lot of people in the industry who are just in the arena of tunnel vision that a certain kind of talk radio isn’t going to work. I can’t get bogged down by that. I can only control what I can control. I can only work as hard as I can to make it right for three hours on our show. I think our longevity of finishing up our eighth year and going into number nine speaks volumes about how we’ve been swimming upstream and surviving.
TALKERS: I want to congratulate you on receiving the Paul Wellstone Award which recognizes the dedication and accomplishment of public servants who, as it states, “exemplify the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota for his commitment to public service and his commitment to labor.” I realize what a huge honor this award is in the progressive community.
ES: Thank you and you know, I think about Senator Wellstone and I’ve thought about him the last few days before I go to Las Vegas to receive this at the Steelworkers Convention. Would he have voted to extend the Bush tax cuts? What would Paul Wellstone be saying about the middle class right now? Would Paul Wellstone have been on the front lines in Wisconsin? Would Paul Wellstone be going to these free health care clinics and be advocating for universal health care? What would Paul Wellstone have said during the health care debate? Would he have taken the president to the woodshed for not putting in the public option? I’m honored to have my name on that plaque with his name. Because, I’m right in line with where I think he would be. He was a teacher. He was a professor at a Minnesota college before he got into politics. What would Paul Wellstone say about these teachers who are being asked to take a financial haircut with their pension and their health care and their salaries? So, this award means a lot to me and I want to continue the fights I know he would be involved in if he were with us today.