The most widely carried liberal on radio is a "prairie-dwelling, red-meat-eating, gun-toting former conservative" who broadcasts from the unlikely locale of North Dakota.
Since launching his syndicated show last January, former football player Ed Schultz has peddled his Fargo brand of populism to 70 markets, including stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Phoenix, Denver, Boston and Detroit.
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"A year ago they were laughing at us," says Schultz, who debuts on Washington's WRC next week. "I knew I had the talent and could get the job done. I didn't believe what the industry was saying, that liberal talk radio couldn't make it."
Schultz, 50, has a long way to go before he approaches the influence of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and others in the conservative-dominated medium. His tale of how his second wife helped lead him out of the darkness of right-wing belief is a bit too neat, and some recent fundraising for the Democratic Party raises questions about his independence. But Schultz is an overnight sensation with a red-state base and a regular-guy sense of humor, all of which have been lacking in the liberal world.
The show was developed with $1.8 million from Democracy Radio, a New York nonprofit run by Tom Athans, the husband of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), with a board composed of three Clinton administration veterans. Another Democratic senator, North Dakota's Byron Dorgan, recommended Schultz to Democracy Radio. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) hosted a fundraiser about a year ago at her home for Democracy Radio and Schultz, which was attended by about 20 Democratic senators, including Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tom Daschle. Such lawmakers "feel the acute pain of having talk radio be mostly conservative," Athans says.
Schultz, in turn, contributed $2,000 apiece to Dorgan and Daschle last year.
Ken Karls, North Dakota's Republican chairman, says he stopped listening to Schultz when the radio host became "more and more friendly" with the state's Democratic senators and kept booking them as guests. "He fed them what they wanted to hear," Karls says of Schultz's liberal audience. "When people disagree with him, he has hung up on them."
Big Ed (6-2, 250 pounds) was a college quarterback who briefly made the roster of the Oakland Raiders but became a sportscaster after failing to catch on in the NFL. He drifted into political talk after voting for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "I was pretty much a warmonger and a pretty greedy guy," he says. "I always wanted to make as much money as I possibly could and felt the downtrodden didn't deserve a break."
In the fairy-tale version recounted in his book, "Straight Talk From the Heartland," Schultz saw the light during a first date with the woman who would become his second wife, Wendy, who managed a Fargo homeless shelter. He spoke with military veterans there and realized they were not the bums and freeloaders he had lambasted on the air.
Schultz says his views evolved over time until he declared on the air in 2000 that he was a Democrat. He loves to rip President Bush and "the righties" and calls conservative radio hosts "mean-spirited and intentionally dishonest." Asked if he isn't equally tough, Schultz says: "I do it with facts. I pound it right back at them. I don't think there's any question the media in this country is intimidated by the Bush White House."
Schultz, who has been profiled by "Today" and praised by Esquire, has received only a sliver of the media attention lavished on Al Franken and the liberal Air America network, which is on 40 stations. Schultz, who is syndicated by Jones Radio and still does his local morning show, casts himself as a broadcaster practiced at entertainment rather than a celebrity trying to learn radio.
Insisting he's no Democratic foot soldier, Schultz criticizes John Kerry as a terrible presidential candidate and says "the righties connect with Joe Beercan better than the Democrats do." He also opposes abortion but doesn't talk about it on the air, calling it "a lousy talk radio topic."
But Schultz is clearly close to the party. In a 2003 speech at the Capitol, he urged two dozen Democratic senators to support liberal radio, after which he says Clinton offered to help. In recent weeks, he raised thousands of dollars by asking listeners to contribute to the party's successful effort to win a recount for Christine Gregoire in the Washington state governor's race. "I don't know the first thing about Christine Gregoire," Schultz admits, "but I know there were allegations of election fraud."
Will Schultz abandon North Dakota for big-city stardom? He just rented an apartment on Capitol Hill and plans to spend more time here.