By Mike Kinosian
LOS ANGELES — When Ed Schultz “touched down” on Jones Radio Networks in January 2004, it was an honor for me (then as special features editor of Inside Radio) to profile the former All-American quarterback, who died yesterday (7/5) of natural causes at his Washington, D.C. residence; Schultz was just 64.
Even in 2004, the list of conservative talk show hosts was seemingly endless. Producing a laundry list of nationally heard personalities with an opposing viewpoint was a considerably more difficult task. “As they say in just about every reality-based show these days,” I somewhat eerily wrote (given the outcome of the 2016 presidential election), “things as you know them are about to change.” The specific reference was to Schultz’s three-hour (3:00 pm – 6:00 pm, ET) JRN show, which debuted on January 5, 2004.
There was considerable snickering when JRN (and later, Dial Global) began distributing “The Ed Schultz Show.” The joke was that the left had to go all the way to a small-market to find their wonderchild.
A year later, it was Schultz who enjoyed the last laugh.
Preferring not to be dubbed a trailblazer, he accentuated, “I don’t want to take credit for anybody else’s success. If it’s not a good radio show, it’s not going to make it. I’ve listened to all of them and think my show is as good as anything else on radio. I’m very critical with what I do and believe in my product and ability. I’m not convinced that the number of markets is as important right now as it is that we change the thinking within the industry.”
While fully cognizant that particular ballgame was in its embryonic stage, the positively engaging Schultz maintained feedback to the weekday afternoon show had been overwhelming. “I had an idea that people were yearning for something different, but I didn’t think that the emails and calls would be as congratulatory and as exciting,” he enthusiastically detailed. “The tone has been ‘Thank God, you’re finally on the air – we’re so sick and tired of listening to the same stuff all the time.’ I have a lot of confidence and will work very hard at it.”
The audience, he maintained, was ready for a progressive-oriented alternative. “It’s almost as if they’re going to mobilize and tell other people about it. I’ve been in radio and television a long time, but I’ve never seen such a motivated audience to finally get in this game and make a difference.”
Some 14 years ago, the majority of listeners outside the upper-Midwest were most likely unfamiliar with Schultz, but ratings he amassed for many years in Fargo (North Dakota) were of legendary proportion. “I’ve had a very stable career and haven’t jumped around too much,” he modestly stated. “I did weekend television sports in Fargo, got a sports director’s job in television, and worked for an ABC O&O for a year. I’ve really never had a burning desire to leave Fargo to get stuck in traffic in New York City.”
There’s no question the bulk of his broadcast reputation until that time was based on the 13 years he spent at Fargo’s WDAY and the nearly eight years (since 1996) he had been with cross-town KFGO. “I have always had a good job;been in a comfortable place;and always enjoyed my lifestyle,” cited Schultz, who attended Moorhead State University (now known as Minnesota State University Moorhead) on a football scholarship. “In this business, timing is everything. There’s a time to move on, a time to take on a new challenge, and a time to get the competitive juices flowing. I’ve been very fortunate to do a lot of different things. I love radio and try to make it fun. It’s people, places, things, happenings, and events.”
In what qualified as the epitome of dedication, this lunch pail-toting type personality continued his local 30-minute show (8:30 am – 9:00 am, CT) on KFGO and a two-hour (9:00 am -11:00am, CT) regional show. After taking a three-hour break to prepare, he then talked to – and with – his national JRN audience. At work by 6:30 am, Schultz recounted, “I still get home for dinner on time. We’re just doing things a little differently.”
A mid-2000s Democracy In Radio-conducted survey confirmed the ratio of conservative to liberal/progressive talk show hosts was over ten to one. “We were invited to Washington to meet some people and I took some of my work with me,” Schultz recalled. “Democracy In Radio had a connection with Jones and asked them what they thought of me. We had a meeting and slowly put this thing together. The Jones people are excited about this show and think it can work. My wife [Wendy] and I met Glen Jones and he’s a believer in the project.”
Suddenly several other such progressive voices – including Al Franken and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. – were about to be heard as well, with Schultz admitting, “I’ve never met any of those folks or had any conversations with them, but I welcome them to the flock. I wish them the best of luck and hope they make it, too.”
Much like present-day 2018, healthcare issues, jobs, the budget, and the war in Iraq all contributed to hot talk radio topics 14 years ago. “The audience is engaged in just about any national topic,” Norfolk-born Schultz explained. “We’re probably pretty politically heavy right now, because that’s the big story. There’ll be a lot of other things that we’ll talk about such as life experiences, diets, the NFL, and fun stuff. Politics though is pretty much the focus right now.”
The Democratic National Committee didn’t expect Schultz to be its mouthpiece. “I’m very progressive on many issues, but it’s in my contract that I have total freedom of editorial content,” stressed Schultz, the son of an aeronautical engineer (George) and an English teacher (Mary). “The only thing the Democrats want is a fair playing field.”
On the opposing side of a core DNC issue, he was pro-life, but emphasized, “I don’t shove it down people’s throats. I’m not overbearing about it in any way. Abortion on talk radio is like watching taped-delay sports: It just doesn’t attract anybody and you’re not going to win. I’ve never done shows on abortion, because you’re not going to generate audience.”
Among Schultz’s guests during his initial week of programs was then-New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who was adamant that she wouldn’t enter the 2004 presidential race and, of course, the former First Lady did not do so that year. “I’d support her in a heartbeat,” Schultz insisted in that 2004 interview with me. “You never know if she’ll change her mind – six months is an eternity in politics. Who knows what will happen? On many issues, President [George W.] Bush is an empty suit. I think it would be exciting if Hillary entered the race, but I’d certainly understand if she didn’t.”
Emerging from a tightly-bunched field to win the Iowa caucus that year was Massachusetts’ then-junior Senator John Kerry, who would go on to become the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. “He connected with the union vote, veterans, and hit the agriculture policy hard,” Schultz pointed out. Campaigning for Kerry in Iowa was fellow Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy; Schultz opined the late Senator “obviously made an impact for [Kerry] there. People are loving the fact that’s there’s competition and debate going on in the Democratic Party. We were able to get to know [former Missouri representative] Richard Gephardt; I think he’s a real class guy with a level head and compassionate heart. [Retired Army general] Wesley Clark is also very impressive.”While not having had much contact with Howard Dean, Schultz had the former 12-year Vermont Governor on his show very quickly. “[Ex-Iowa Senator] Tom Harkin is very passionate about Dean, who has the support of former Vice President Al Gore and [former New Jersey Senator] Bill Bradley,” Schultz remarked.
Ready To Rumble
Certain logistic and organization similarities exist in putting on a national show like the one Schultz did and conducting a political campaign. Lining up guests, however, wasn’t very difficult for him. “It’s just a matter of working the phones and communicating with people,” he reasoned. “Democrats and progressives are ready to fight back.”
Among those resolute about wanting to be on Schultz’s debut show was the aforementioned 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. In a topic that could have aired today, California Senator Dianne Feinstein talked about the Bush immigration proposal and what it means to her state. “The purpose of our show is to give these people a chance to answer legitimate questions and find out exactly where they stand on policies, instead of having their positions interpreted on the radio by the conservative right,” Schultz asserted. “Most of these right-wing talk show hosts are giving two- and three-hour monologues on how we’re supposed to think.”
In addition to providing his own commentary, Schultz took listener calls and talked to newsmakers. “It’s important to know why [then-North Dakota Democratic Senator] Byron Dorgan wants to go after the Internal Revenue Service; why they’re having so many mistakes in their auditing; and to hear [North Dakota’s other Democratic Senator at the time] Kent Conrad talk about the international monetary fund. These are pertinent things and what people want to hear. They want a fast-paced show, they want to be entertained and feel confident they’ll get the latest news and comment. Democrats are ready to defend themselves and go on the offensive. This is a great opportunity in the radio industry. I’m excited about it and believe it can work. I don’t think about giving a talk to a sellout crowd – I only think about today’s show. I have to get it done today. That’s really how I’ve approached this whole thing.”
One thing Schultz didn’t buy into is the philosophy that a radio station has to be conservative all day in order to be successful. “Television networks don’t run the same programs every night,” he noted. “It’s been an uphill battle because we’ve been fighting a certain culture in this country. For 15 years, conservatives have known they’ve had a safe haven on the radio dial. Democrats have never felt confident that there was anywhere they could go to fight back, defend themselves, and go on the offensive.”
Fighting For The Little Guy
Similar progressive-oriented shows were tried prior to the one Schultz hosted and – in his opinion – there was a simple reason why most of them fizzled. “They didn’t try the right people. In the meantime, conservative talk show hosts in this country have talked down to the radio audience, saying they’re the only product that can sell.”
Another issue involved sales. “I’m not afraid to address this,” Schultz declared. “If you’re an owner and have something that’s selling on the air, why would you want to try something different? The inclination would be to do more of the same. Stations haven’t had to try liberal talk radio for profit purposes. We’re fighting for the little man in America. We want to represent those people who take a shower afterwork.”
In addition to being carried on terrestrial stations and Armed Forces Radio, Schultz’s program was carried on “Sirius Left” and XM’s “America Left.”
As he quickly discovered, new shows have to tout any and all favorable scenarios. “KTOX, Needles (California) dropped Dr. Laura for our show and the calls have been two to one in our favor,” he proudly reported. “The general manager there loves our show; that’s the kind of success story we must have. We have to win in the rural areas of America and in small towns and middle-sized markets. I also think we can win in big markets. Syndication is tough – so I’m focusing on the show and I think we can get it done.”
The number of shows he juggled notwithstanding, Schultz steadfastly devoted one hour of preparation for each hour he was on the air.
Unlike many other talk show hosts, however, he never screened his calls. “Maybe it’s the part of the country we’re from, but I trust a person is going to bring something to the table,” he underscored. “We do have a seven-second delay, so if someone says something they shouldn’t, we can move on – but I don’t want ‘manufactured’ radio. I want to take the pulse of the people and want to hear what America has to say on the budget and health care. If the show works, it works; if it doesn’t, we’ll have to make some changes.”
Immediately after getting some publicity for his national venture, Schultz came under a brief attack from the right. “These conservative talk show hosts aren’t intellectual heavyweights,” he quipped. “They are not down there with the common people, either. Once we start getting on more stations, I’m sure the conservatives will start attacking me again.”
Calling the shots was nothing new for Schultz, who captured 1977’s NCAA Division ll passing honors. In addition, he had quarterback tryouts with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders and New York Jets, as well as the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “I never made a roster, but had a few cups of coffee and doughnuts,” he joked. “It was fun and I learned a lot.” At that time in his life, he wanted to be a football coach. “Going through those tryouts was a real learning experience. I was close to making it, but it didn’t happen.”
Instead of having a career as a pro player, Schultz opted for broadcasting. A sportscaster for over 15 years, he became a talk radio host in 1992. “I just got tired of doing sports,” the father of six candidly confessed. “I like to dabble in it though and still do football play-by-play [as voice of the University of North Dakota]. I really enjoy that; however, the day-to-day grind of doing sports just got old. I didn’t feel I was reaching my full potential and wanted to do something different.”
Finding the opportunity to combine his Jones Radio Network show and a play-by-play career very intriguing, Schultz – who was a partisan of the football play-by-play style of veteran ABC-TV broadcaster Keith Jackson – realized it would be “an awesome cross-promote. I cando play-by-play – Rush [Limbaugh] can’t. The title of Howard Cosell’s book was ‘I Never Played The Game’ – the title of my book would be ‘I Played The Game.’”
Rather than further sniping at Premiere Networks’ Limbaugh, Schultz, instead, respectfully commented, “He has done a lot for the industry and deserves a lot of credit. He’s been very successful and opened the door for many other people who think the way he does. Let’s face it, there are some areas of the country [in which] Rush doesn’t play very well. I just hope that people give me a chance and we have an opportunity to get on some big stations because I know that I can knock down some ratings.”
Having looked forward to challenging Sean Hannity head-to-head in many markets, conservative-turned-progressive Schultz emphatically elaborated, “In my heart, I really think I can deliver a better product and think I can beat him. Rush started with one small station after another; Hannity [and the late Alan Colmes were] on [the Fox News Channel] every night. Give me a television show every night and my radio show will go to the top a lot faster, too.”
A longtime advocate of those living in rural America, Schultz didn’t envision himself stepping down from his local and regional radio shows. “It’s sad to see what’s happening there,” he summarized with considerable compassion. “After all these years of fighting for what I believe in for these folks, it would be very disingenuous of me to run off to another opportunity. I’m a little better than that. I’m not saying that I’m going to be here forever, but I don’t think [leaving now] is what I’m all about. I’ll just have to work a little harder and do things a little differently. My wife is working with me and I think we’re set up the right way. I feel very comfortable and really enjoy these people.”
Anything but oblivious that he was being mocked when his national show debuted, Schultz acknowledged naysayers said it would never work. “I knew about pushback in the industry and the early comments. I never understood their motivation for that and why a category would be bad-mouthed, but I just put my blinders on and went after it. It’s important that I’m true to my listeners and true to the story. Just because I’m in front of a microphone doesn’t mean I know it all. I’m not perfect and I [realize that] I’m going to make mistakes.”
When Los Angeles’ KTLK launched “Progressive Talk 1150” in early-February 2005, Schultz jetted west and did his first two shows from the City of Angels. “Coming from a market like Fargo where I wake up at 6:00 am, I find it very energizing to go out to markets and see face-to-face who’s listening,” Schultz disclosed. “I just felt a real heartfelt thanks to all the people who took time to come out and visit with us. It can’t help but energize the soul.”
One thing he discovered and found amazing in his first year as a national talent was how engaged people are all over the country. “I don’t think any one portion of the country has a lock on the market when it comes to being concerned about the issues, wanting to have a good laugh, hear an interesting story or listen to a newsmaker,” Schultz observed to me in a later interview. “Talk radio is pretty universal. Rock music plays well on the East coast, but it’s also popular on the West coast. As a talk show host, my gut feeling has always been that you get prepared, bring the material to the table and listeners will respond to it. If I get calls that are way off-base or not in the arena, we move on.”
After a more than ten-year run, “The Ed Schultz” radio show concluded in May 2014 with Schultz replacing that with a one-hour eponymous news and commentary podcast (2015 – 2018).
Simultaneous with his syndicated radio program was MSNBC’s nighttime news/talk “Ed Show” (2009 – 2015).
Most recently, he fronted “News with Ed Schultz,” a daily primetime weekday show on RT America, which is part of the RT Network.
As soon as word spread yesterday (Thursday, 7/5) about Schultz’s death, countless tributes punctuated social media. “Ed Schultz was a passionate defender of American workers and strongly supported trade policies that work for all, not just large corporations,” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter. “For many years his voice has been strong, steady, and against forces of corporate greed. Ed was a friend of mine and will be sorely missed.”
Email managing editor Mike Kinosian at Kinosian@TALKERS.com