George Bush had best be careful when he fiddles with the radio dial in the presidential limousine on Inauguration Day. Instead of the soothing blather of his favorite right-wing talk-radio sycophants, he could face an aural assault from a 250-pound ex-football star named Ed Schultz, who is prone to exclaiming, “We’re getting hijacked by Bush and his neocon fascists.” Starting the same week the President begins his second term, Schultz, a fiery Midwestern populist who has turned Bush-bashing into a radio phenomenon, will be on the air in DC.
Gaining a coveted birth on the capital city’s radio dial is the latest coup for Schultz, a veteran broadcaster whose national show started airing on two stations–in Langdon, North Dakota, and Needles, California–a year ago. Now it’s on more than seventy stations and the XM and Sirius Satellite networks. In addition to Washington, Schultz has cracked the Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Seattle, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Miami and Denver markets. By comparison, right-wing radio kingpin Rush Limbaugh was on in only fifty-six markets, most of them small, after his first year. And the liberal Air America network, with its bigger budget and celebrity-rich roster, is on in about forty–although it too is experiencing postelection growth and will be hitting the DC airwaves in January. Gabe Hobbs, vice president in charge of talk-radio for the Clear Channel behemoth, says Schultz is “the 800-pound gorilla” of an unexpected new radio format: liberal talk.
What is it that works about Schultz? For one thing, he comes from radio. “I’m here to do a good radio show first,” he says. “If you go into this with political aspirations, or thinking you’re going to change your country, you’re going to fall on your face.” The former quarterback knows a thing or two about hurting his face, and his ego–and also about recovering. After the former NCAA Division II passing champion got turned down by the pros, he went into sports announcing in Fargo, North Dakota. Eventually, he got his own local talk show and, at the prodding of the woman he eventually married, started discussing issues like homelessness and the Upper Midwest’s lingering farm crisis. Schultz is not a cookie-cutter liberal: He hunts, eats red meat and is the first to point up when he believes Democrats are boneheads. “I think I have the old traditional Democratic values,” says Schultz, 50. “I think I represent the people who take their shower after work. I’m as much a populist as I am a progressive.”
He’s also quick-witted, funny and just over-the-top enough to draw an audience. One of Schultz’s most enthusiastic Fargo listeners was North Dakota Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan, an old-school progressive populist who had grown increasingly alarmed at the dominance of the radio airwaves by conservative talkers. With encouragement from Dorgan and a few others, Schultz started exploring the prospect of going national. He knew that more-prominent figures, from Mario Cuomo to Jim Hightower, had tried to be the liberal Limbaugh. And he knew radio programmers had come to dismiss the idea that there might be an audience for something other than round-the-clock right-wingers. But, says Schultz, “I just didn’t buy it. I was on radio in Fargo doing liberal talk-radio and getting high ratings.”
After laying the groundwork, Schultz made his move last January. Since then his show has changed many minds. Howard Dean hails him as “a tremendous voice for Democrats.” John Kerry made three appearances (Schultz complains, “Kerry and his people really did not understand radio the way Bush and his people did”). Potential 2008 presidential contenders, from Hillary Clinton to Russ Feingold, have begun appearing. Schultz says they’re smart to come on–not just because his show is hot but because radio is the medium of the future for progressives. “You’re not going to win elections anymore on an editorial page; you’re going to win elections with a constant repetition of themes that finally get to people. And that happens on radio,” he says. “Progressives better get on radio, because radio is where the message is delivered–and we’ve proven over the past year that it doesn’t have to be some Limbaugh-clone, right-wing message.”