On the Air in ’04: A Liberal Voice

Posted October 24, 2003 at 6:29pm

With the help of Democratic lawmakers, a progressive radio outfit plans to launch a national talk show in January, the first step by a liberal organization to gain a presence in a medium dominated by conservatives in recent years.

Partnering with Jones Radio Network, Democracy Radio has signed Ed Schultz, a North Dakota-based radio personality with a liberal bent, to deliver a progressive message.

“I can’t wait to debate the conservative right in this country and take them to the firewall,” Schultz said. “It will happen.”

Democratic leaders and staff have been intricately involved in the project, and Members are being enlisted to help raise money to pay for it. Several Democratic Senators are expected to attend an upcoming event at Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (La.) Capitol Hill home to raise money for the venture, which is expected to cost about $1.5 million over the next two years.

“We are funded entirely by individual donors who believe very much in our mission and what we are doing who have already stepped up,” said Tom Athens, executive director of Democracy Radio. “Hopefully we will find many more that will.”

Schultz currently hosts a two-and-a-half-hour radio program broadcast on seven stations in the Dakotas. He said his show would be a mixture of caller interaction and commentary and vowed to keep his current practice of not screening telephone calls.

“I take them cold,” he said. “I like that format.”

Schultz and representatives from Democracy Radio and its partners met Thursday with Democratic Senators in a closed-door meeting to discuss the program’s launch.

“Ed is a radio personality with a great amount of energy,” said Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.). “He is a strong, assertive voice with progressive views, and Lord knows we need voices like that on the air.”

Ever since losing the Senate majority and six House seats in the 2002 elections, Democrats have been examining ways to effectively deliver their message to voters beyond the Beltway. A progressive think tank and efforts to try to take back the radio airwaves sprung from those midterm ashes.

The Center for American Progress is a think tank headed by John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Athens, the husband of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), founded Democracy Radio.

“There are certain truisms that there is no real voice for any progressive radio,” said Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). “All the intellectual energy has been on the right for the last 15 years and there has been no real progressive energy out there.”

Schultz said he thinks there is a market for his brand of politics and is ready to lock horns with conservatives.

“There is no question in my mind when I get the opportunity that I will be able to debate these people toe-to-toe on any issue,” Schultz said. “It will be successful.”

Schultz also dismissed the notion that Democrats don’t listen to talk radio. “[Former Vice President] Al Gore won the election,” he said. “What do you mean Democrats don’t listen to the radio?”

Jones Radio, a company that syndicates political talker Neal Boortz and consumer advocate Clark Howard among others, is shopping the show nationally, but representatives did not say what markets Schultz would appear.

Athens said the “process is ongoing” and that officials would have “a more firm understanding” of what cities Schultz will launch in “by the latter part of December.”

“There will be a serious focus on major markets throughout the United States, and there will be some second-tier markets,” Athens said.

Democracy Radio and its partners turned to Schultz after conducting a survey that revealed there were only 40 progressive radio talk show hosts in the country making a profit. Schultz was No. 1.

Jones Radio CEO Ron Hartenbaum said his company is convinced listeners will embrace Schultz because he has the same qualities that have made conservative talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity successful.

“The bottom line of this, no matter what the political point of view is, this is an entertainment and information medium,” Hartenbaum said.

A separate effort to create a Democratic radio network is being financed by Democratic donors Sheldon and Anita Drobny of Chicago.

Last year, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) blamed Limbaugh for inciting listeners, directly resulting in an increase in threats against him.

“What happens when Rush Limbaugh attacks those of us in public life is that people aren’t satisfied just to listen,” Daschle told reporters at a Nov. 20, 2002, news conference. “They want to act because they get emotionally invested. And so, you know, the threats to those of us in public life go up dramatically and — on our families and on us in a way that’s very disconcerting.”