Channel Changer

"I think I have a fear in general about whether being a pundit is a worthwhile thing to be," Rachel Maddow tells me over dinner at a Latin restaurant in lower Manhattan. It's more than the ordinary self-deprecation of someone who just got her own cable commentary show. It's an insecurity essential to the on-air style that's powered the 35-year-old's rapid rise from a wacky morning radio show in western Massachusetts to the liberal radio network Air America and now to her own prime-time show on MSNBC.

Maddow is not a Tim Russert or a Chris Matthews--an ostensibly nonpartisan interviewer who badgers politicians and policy-makers about contradictions in their records. Nor is she a Rush Limbaugh or a Glenn Beck--an attack dog who deals in calculated anger, bluster, and outrage. She's no mild-mannered liberal like Alan Colmes or a veteran observer like Wolf Blitzer or David Gregory. Maddow has broken the broadcasting mold. She has succeeded as an avowed liberal on television precisely because she is not a liberal version of conservatives like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. Unlike so many progressive media figures who sought to replicate the on-air habits of the aggressive shock jocks of the right, she stumbled upon a workable style for the left. She is liberal without apology or embarrassment, bases her authority on a deep comprehension of policy rather than the culture warrior's claim to authenticity, and does it all with a light, even slightly mocking, touch. She proves that liberals can attract viewers on television when they actually act like, well, liberals.

Maddow's accidental path was paved by the success of Keith Olbermann's Countdown on MSNBC. Neither Olbermann's impressive ratings (second only to Bill O'Reilly's) nor his liberalism were foreseen by the network, which hired him in 2003 as a straight newscaster. Olbermann's audience, along with the declining popularity of Republican media outlets as the country soured on the Bush agenda, emboldened MSNBC to give Maddow her own hour of prime time, a coveted 9 P.M. slot immediately following Countdown. (The Rachel Maddow Show debuted Sept. 8.)

The announcement was interpreted by some as a turning of the tide, a sign that cable news networks were no longer a hostile environment to liberalism. But, for her part, Maddow never accepted the idea that cable executives harbor a conservative bias. As she put it, "It's sort of the first refuge of lefty scoundrels to say, 'I get the real picture, and the mainstream media would explode if they ever handled it.' But if you can make it interesting, the mainstream media is interested in it."

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Maddow started her career with more interest in changing policy than in changing the media. After attending Stanford, she studied at Oxford, where as a Rhodes scholar (she says she was the first openly gay American to receive the honor) she completed a dissertation that expanded on work she was already doing as an AIDS activist. Her efforts were based on a profound public-health insight: Prisons offer a surprising opportunity for AIDS prevention and treatment because inmates are a vulnerable population collected in one place and have a constitutional right to health care.

In 1999, Maddow was supporting herself with odd jobs (she met her partner Susan Mikula after the artist hired Maddow to do yard work) when she attended an open casting call for a disc-jockey position at a local radio station in Northampton, Massachusetts, and scored her own morning show. Five years later, when she heard about a new liberal radio network forming in New York, which would come to be known as Air America, she concocted what she calls a great "caper" to get a job at the network--involving, among other gambits, having an ex-girlfriend impersonate one of Al Franken's students at Harvard.

Her caper paid off, and she was tapped to co-host a show with network executive and Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead and rapper Chuck D of the group Public Enemy. (Maddow is perhaps the only person who can claim she has worked regularly with both Chuck D and Pat Buchanan.) But the show never took off and was replaced with a program hosted by Jerry Springer. Maddow convinced the network to give her a solo show and despite being shuffled from time slot to time slot, was able to build an audience via her podcast. She has held on to her radio show, which currently airs from 6 P.M. to 8 P.M. Eastern time, even after making the jump to TV.

On days when she isn't pondering the meaning of punditry, she says she worries "about being a conventional-wisdom machine." To that end, Maddow tries to avoid opinion-based commentary--she doesn't even have a TV in her New York City apartment. "Much more than I wish was true, I tend to at least subconsciously agree with the last thing I heard that made sense," she says, "and so I try to consume as much fact and reporting as I can and as little of other people's analysis as I can."

Bill Wolff, vice president of prime-time programming at MSNBC, says that, of all the hosts and guest hosts he's worked with, Maddow is the hardest-working. When she guest-hosted for Countdown, she'd pre-record her radio show and arrive at MSNBC studios at 9 A.M. for a show that started at 6 P.M. She spent the time researching--even delving into topics that weren't on the agenda. "I've been in the TV game a long time, and I've never seen anyone--anyone!--prepare like she prepares," Wolff says.

When I visited her at Air America a month before her MSNBC show was announced, Maddow spent most of her working hours in the cramped and messy office that she shares with her radio show's executive producer. The office--the walls of which are adorned with a holographic picture of a unicorn and a shooting target--is where she holds the daily news meeting for her Air America show. At that day's meeting, Maddow did most of the talking--accepting, rejecting, or modifying ideas definitively and quickly. "It's a great advantage to me that I've almost always done a full radio-show prep period before I've done any prime-time or late-night," she says. (In this, she has something in common with right-wing radio hosts like Hannity, O'Reilly, and Beck, who do both radio and TV.)

Maddow's immersion in facts rather than in opinions has helped shape her on-air persona. When Pat Buchanan, who joined Maddow on MSNBC's election-night panel throughout the presidential primary, claimed that the expansion of the health-care program S-CHIP would give money to already well-off families, Maddow quickly pointed out that 8 million children in the very income group he claimed could afford insurance don't have it. And in another segment, when conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said John McCain had not backtracked on previous support for immigration reform, Maddow was ready with examples of how McCain had reversed himself on the issue during the primary campaign. "When you see how hard she works and how much of a pro she is, that's magic to producers. She just kills it," Wolff says. "And that preparation is seen in the ease with which she goes topic to topic and the seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of current events she displays in the conversation."

Her whip-smart retorts as a member of MSNBC's commentary panel during the 2008 presidential primaries first brought her to the attention of many liberal political junkies who hadn't heard her on Air America. And while her first exclusive gig at MSNBC may have been talking horse-race politics on Race for the White House, she's actually most interested in foreign policy and national security. In addition to her daily radio show and nightly MSNBC appearances, Maddow has been spending several hours a day writing a book about the role of the American military in foreign policy. "I think that structural changes in American military, government, [and] politics over the past two generations have brought us to a place where we have drifted into essentially becoming a militarist country," she says. Try to imagine that coming out of Wolf Blitzer's mouth.

Maddow's wonkery, however, is leavened by a light, sardonic touch that keeps her commentary from veering into the pedantic. Unlike so many televised liberals, who seem almost physically pained by the combative cable-news format, she obviously enjoys herself. A good example came during an election-night panel discussion of Obama's victory in the Nebraska and Idaho primaries, which Buchanan tried to delegitimize by saying that Obama could only appeal to liberals. Without missing a beat, Maddow responded, "In what kind of a world do Idaho and Nebraska represent the left lane?" She had the entire panel laughing outright. A chastened Buchanan could only manage a wan joke about Marxists.

At a time when TV news was often frustratingly fixated on the minutiae of scandals like Obama's connection with controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright, Maddow was a rare voice liberals could admire--and one they could trust to shift the conversation back to more substantive issues like health care and the Iraq War. "There's this sort of snide activist inside me that's like, 'Oh the mainstream media can't handle me, I'm so pure,'" Maddow says. "But actually, they're totally interested in this."

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When the radio network Air America was founded in 2004, it aimed to balance out conservative dominance of the airwaves and inevitably attracted people who already had some modest success imitating conservatives on talk radio. One of its early stars was Randi Rhodes, a Florida radio veteran who managed to build herself a liberal audience in the empty days before Air America was founded. Rhodes joined the network at the same time as Maddow. But unlike Maddow, she didn't have to scheme for a job. Rhodes came with a reputation, a brash confidence that appealed to liberals who had long wanted a counterweight to the conservative voices on the AM dial. Rhodes, whom The Miami Herald described as "part Joan Rivers, part shock jock Howard Stern and part Saturday Night Live's 'Coffee Talk' lady," fit the part. On Fridays, she'd open her program by playing the song "Bounce Your Boobies" by Rusty Warren. In 2007, Talkers magazine named her its "Woman of the Year."

She performed as promised. In one memorable exchange on CNN in 2006, Rhodes repeatedly yelled at conservative talk-radio host Ben Ferguson, telling him he should go to Iraq: "You go! You go! You go!" As the liberal Rhodes and conservative Ferguson became increasingly unhinged, it became tough to tell them apart--and to listen to them. On her radio show in 2007, Rhodes called the Republicans the "Grand Old Pervert Party." Her provocations were clearly a deliberate strategy--her show made sure to upload the clip to YouTube.

But liberals, it turned out, didn't have much of a stomach for that type of in-your-face anger. Air America struggled to gain an audience that even came close to the success of right-wing radio. The most popular Air America shows reach about 1.5 million listeners a week according to Talkers. Limbaugh shouts in the ears of 13.5 million. Rhodes' angry persona eventually resulted in her departure from the network after she called Hillary Clinton a "fucking whore." (Rhodes says she really left over a contract dispute and that the comment was part of a comedy routine. She now has a show on Nova M radio.)

Maddow, on the other hand, wasn't interested in basing her approach on that of conservative talkers and wasn't given much guidance or feedback by the network's higher-ups. So she developed her approach to broadcasting on her own. Air America midwifed the birth of a new kind of liberal pundit largely by accident.

In this, Maddow and Air America mirror the haphazard paths to success taken by several prominent liberal projects of recent years. Like Air America, other institutions were built with the idea of emulating the successful entities of the right: The Center for American Progress, for instance, looked with envy at the Heritage Foundation, with its preference for public relations over actual ideas. But CAP moved beyond its imitative beginnings and evolved into a serious think tank, generating new ideas on poverty and national security and pairing them with a state-of-the-art online rapid response shop. They found a model, in other words, that suited liberalism's strengths. Other new progressive organizations of the last decade have gone well beyond the banal imitate-the-right premises on which they were founded.

Likewise, though Air America thought it wanted to create an analog to right-wing radio, it found its only breakout success in Maddow--the furthest thing from Rush Limbaugh. Rhodes still appears with some regularity on cable news and, as of last fall, had one of the largest audiences of any liberal talk-radio host. Yet, she primarily reaches radio listeners interested in a strident, angry liberal. Because Maddow is now established on cable TV, she speaks to a much larger audience--one that doesn't necessarily agree with her. She may have had to scheme her way onto Air America in the first place, but she is in many ways the network's greatest success story.

* * *

Over the past few years, as much of America soured on the war in Iraq and President Bush's approval ratings sank, the corporate media's hostility toward anti-war voices faded. Cable networks found themselves casting about for charismatic liberals who knew how to pin on a mic. "There were so many more conservative talk-show hosts to choose from," says Shelley Lewis, who was involved in the creation of Air America and served as its vice president of programming. "When we came along there were a lot of cable-news bookers who were interested in having people from our background."

Of all the hosts Air America sent to cable news, Maddow was the one with staying power. After her appearances on the primary-night panel and on Race for the White House, she had several highly successful stints guest-hosting for Keith Olbermann (she managed to retain almost his entire audience for a two-week period in June and July--an unprecedented feat for a guest host). And in August of this year, a scant five months after she signed her first exclusive contract with MSNBC, the network announced she was getting her own show.

Olbermann, in addition to giving Maddow an opportunity to prove herself by guest-hosting his show, has been a transitional figure. Like her, he was a surprise success. A sportscaster with limited experience in straight news, he came on the network in 2003 and, over the next several years, started performing "Special Comments," indignant liberal monologues modeled after Edward R. Murrow's seething commentaries. Olbermann marked a turning point--the first TV host to be consistently and truly outraged by the last eight years of conservative governance. Maddow, while she shares Olbermann's political outlook, does not need to convey the same level of indignation. She is in some ways the first post-Bush liberal pundit, having arrived on the national scene at a time when the country was collectively fed up with the Bush years and audiences were genuinely ready to hear liberal perspectives.

As Olbermann's audience grew to rival, though not quite equal, that of longtime ratings king Bill O'Reilly, MSNBC gained an unwanted reputation as an emergent liberal version of Fox News--a view that became more prevalent after Maddow's show was announced. The reputation is not only unwanted but undeserved. True, Chris Matthews was once a top adviser to Democrat and former House Leader Tip O'Neill, but today he is fond of John McCain and says he voted for George W. Bush in 2000. David Gregory is anathema to the right, but that's based on a few testy exchanges with White House spokesmen, not on his politics. ("I think he's pretty conservative," Maddow says. "I don't think there's anything in his record to suggest he's anything but a straightforward White House correspondent guy.") Meanwhile Republican and former Congressman Joe Scarborough has a three-hour program every morning--more airtime than Maddow and Olbermann have combined. While MSNBC is experimenting with a block of liberal programming, as a network that shares offices with NBC News, it can't afford to be seen as having an ideological bias. The network recently bowed to conservative critics by moving Matthews and Olbermann, both seen as sympathetic to Barack Obama, out of the anchor chairs for live political events.

But that doesn't mean MSNBC is looking to cancel its opinion-based programming--liberal or otherwise--anytime soon. The network isn't motivated by ideology but profits. "Along with the other cable news channels, they see how well opinion shows are doing in primetime," says Felix Gillette, who covers television for The New York Observer. "So for them, going with opinion is seen as win-win. It's cheap and capable of putting up big ratings."

In that, MSNBC's mercenary instincts may have created the opening liberals were waiting for. Olbermann proved to the network that a liberal could draw a huge audience--which helped steady its nerves to take a chance on Maddow. If The Rachel Maddow Show is as successful as Countdown, then liberals will have a truly sustainable approach to establishing a presence on cable news: a large, proven audience, which has the potential to turn liberal commentary into a business strategy. That should allow for many more happy accidents in the future.

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