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One On One With Ed Schultz

By Clyde Weiss

Ed Schultz writes that he was once "a shade right of Attila the Hun." Today he is host of one of the nation's most successful liberal-radio talk programs in America, "The Ed Schultz Show." How did that happen?

"Big Eddie," as the 6-foot-2, 250-pound former football player calls himself, insists that he's no "cookie-cutter liberal." In his book, Straight Talk from the Heartland, the Virginia native and current resident of North Dakota, explains: "We all get labeled and boxed, and you know what? That's just plain dishonest. It doesn't do me justice." What is certain is that Schultz is a very popular radio commentator who zeroes in on Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing talk-show hosts who dominate the airwaves. With humor, insight and a lot of facts, he demonstrates how the right wing gets it wrong on the economy, health care, the war on terror and even what it means to be a liberal.

With his wife Wendy — a psychiatric nurse who doubles as his assistant producer — Schultz often takes the show on the road from their home base in Fargo. Driving into the heartland with the "Big Eddie Cruiser," a 38-foot RV, they listen to Americans who long for a progressive voice like his to compete with the shrill, conservative ideologues like Limbaugh. As his growing ratings prove, Big Ed delivers.

"The Ed Schultz Show," originally owned by Democracy Radio, made its debut in January 2004 on just a few stations. Now owned by Schultz and two partners under the name Product First, the program is heard five days a week, from 3 to 6 p.m. EST, on nearly 100 affiliate stations nationwide — including many Air America outlets (see related story). To find out where to tune Schultz in, go to The Ed Schultz Show.

You underwent a dramatic political conversion. What happened?

It didn't happen overnight. You just can't wake up one morning and say, "I think I'm going to be for universal health care." A number of grassroots events over my broadcast career brought me to be a liberal on many issues. One important event was going to a Salvation Army homeless shelter in Fargo [managed by Wendy, who was to become his wife]. Vietnam veterans there talked to me about their lives, their benefits and what they were up against. It hit me like a ton of bricks how lucky I was. I thought, "That could have been me." Those people were dealt a pretty tough deck of cards in life, and I realized what an injustice the country had committed on people who had served. There have been other events, too, like the plight of the American farmer.

Talk radio, controlled by a few giant corporations like Clear Channel and dominated by arch-conservatives, plays an increasingly significant role in American political life. Is that dangerous?

Media ownership can be an issue if it's managed poorly. It has to be monitored. But you can't force companies to put programming on the air just to fit an ideology. A variety of voices and opinions makes America strong.

In terms of listener appeal, what do right-wingers like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and others have that their progressive counterparts don't have?

I'm glad you mentioned both those guys because one is very good and one of them is not. Rush Limbaugh is a phenomenal talent. He's entertaining, informative, a staunch conservative and a hate merchant at times. Bill O'Reilly runs a lousy radio show. It comes down to talent.

What can progressive voices, like your show and the various shows on Air America Radio, do to build a large and commercially viable audience?

I can't speak for anybody else, including Air America. I can only speak for The Ed Schultz Show. I've been in the media business since 1978. Every successful radio talk show host must have an artful talent. You've got to have experience, maturity, knowledge and a tremendous amount of curiosity. All of these things add up to having a great show.

When you're on the road, what are you learning about how Americans have fared under Bush administration policies?

Democrats may not be as vocal in some areas of the country as others. But they've been talked down to, they've had their political philosophy and beliefs vilified by being called liberal, because liberal has become a nasty word.

Conservatives have done a great job of marketing to America the idea that liberalism is consistent with failure. I don't think most Americans buy that any more because conditions have changed. Their health care, energy and education costs have gone up, and their retirement is being attacked. This 'ownership society' [advanced by the Bush administration] has made a lot of people nervous. The neo-conservative agenda is driving us into a have-versus-have-not society.

Is conservative talk radio partly to blame?

It has had an impact; it's been part of the puzzle. But this is the culmination of a 30-year conservative movement. To have a strong country, you have to have four strong pillars: You've got to defend the country, educate the country, feed the country and have a strong fiscal policy. In my heart, I believe that all those strong foundations have been shaken by the Bush administration and the "neo-con" agenda — for the benefit of a few.

How about religion in politics?

In an open society, in a country for the benefit of all, why should religion affect public policy? It shouldn't. You can't run a country based on religious philosophy and say you're open to all.

The union movement in this country is struggling. Why is that?

This has been the most anti-labor administration in the history of the country. They want cheap labor: that's the conservatives' mission. They don't think the middle class — and unions — are important. I'm a staunch supporter of unions. If we're going to save the middle class, we've got to strengthen unions. They stand for quality of life, quality of wages, quality and fairness of benefits. All of those things are being attacked by the neo-cons. The only thing that's going to be able to push back at Corporate America is unions.

What is your mission on "The Ed Schultz Show"?

Truth, justice and the American way.

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