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Making Airwaves

Broadcaster Rachel Maddow is succeeding at her goal of “lefty rabblerousing.”

Photo: Ashton Worthington

NOW HEAR THIS: In this election year, Air America star Maddow has become a regular TV commentator, too. Television debates tend to be more intense, "all about the decibels."

Listen to an audio clip from Rachel Maddow

By Barrett Sheridan

Thanks to Rush Limbaugh, broadcasters have internalized a simple equation: political talk radio = conservative. Limbaugh begat Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Hugh Hewitt and others who channel their inner Reagan and regularly top national ratings. Lefties can be forgiven if they think there’s no place for them outside satellite radio.

Unless they happen to have found Rachel Maddow. Maddow, ’94, hosts her own political talk show on Air America—created as the left’s answer to Fox News—on weeknights from 6 to 9. Maddow, 34, has a growing reputation as the sharpest knife in the left-hand drawer, but even conservatives might fall for the wholesomeness of her show, which eschews the rude language and coarse stunts that have become staples elsewhere on radio. “I get embarrassed by that,” she says. “I’m a little bit of a Wally Cleaver.”

Maddow’s success proves that a Wally Cleaver worldview isn’t necessarily a handicap. Last year, The Nation magazine named her one of its Most Valuable Progressives, and from the start her show attracted more podcast subscribers than Air America’s other talents, including heavy hitters like Al Franken.

A native Californian who graduated from Stanford with a degree in public policy, Maddow expected to become a professional activist and worked on AIDS issues for prison populations and minorities. A Rhodes scholarship sent her to Oxford soon after she graduated, however, to pursue a doctorate in political science. Then in 1999, while she was holed up in western Massachusetts with her dissertation, she responded to an open audition at her local radio station.

It was really nothing more than a “radio station stunt,” she says, but the stunt went so well that, at the first commercial break, the manager offered her a job. She hosted a morning show in Amherst for a year before returning to Oxford to finish the degree.

Diploma in hand, Maddow “realized that I really missed radio.” She went back to Massachusetts radio for two more years. In 2004 Air America was launched, and with it came the perfect opportunity to mix her self-described “lefty rabblerousing” with her love for the airwaves. She first teamed with Chuck D and Lizz Winstead on a show called Unfiltered, but when it was canceled a year later she talked producers into taking a chance on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Her show includes a guest appearance or two each day (usually by journalists or politicians), an hour of listener calls, and chat about her own diverse interests. The topic du jour could be John McCain’s acceptance of an endorsement from Texas televangelist John Hagee, who once claimed Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for a gay pride parade, or New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s throwing arm. “I kind of feel like I make this bargain with my listeners,” she says. “I earn myself the right to talk about really heavy stuff by balancing it with the goofy stuff.” She opens each show with an update on the Iraq War—something she says she’ll do each day until it’s over—but soon moves into a segment called “Ask Dr. Maddow,” in which the PhD “answers all the questions you’re too lazy to Google yourself.” (Re­cent queries have included “How do you prevent seasickness?” and “Why does vacuum-sealing food keep it fresh?”) As she puts it: “You’re going to hear about Afghanistan, but you’re also going to hear a 25-second fight-scene clip whenever we talk about Chuck Norris.”

As her show’s popularity has grown—the show was extended to three hours in March—Maddow also has become a regular television commentator. Before Air America debuted, “there weren’t very many liberals on television. So [guest bookers] were excited to have a whole stable of lefties from which to choose.” But for someone who dresses “like a first-grader” and was accustomed to the invisibility of radio, television was a big switch. Maddow recalls one of her first appearances opposite Blanquita Cullum, a right-wing radio host from Washington, D.C. “She’s like the Zsa Zsa Gabor of talk radio,” says Maddow, “and then there’s me, in a man’s shirt, saying ‘Don’t put any makeup on me, I’m a dyke!’”

Wardrobe difficulties aside, Maddow has turned television into a successful second career. For more than a year, she served as Tucker Carlson’s liberal foil on his MSNBC show, The Situation; now, in this fraught election year, she’s become a political analyst for the cable news channel. Television debates tend to be more intense than radio ones—“it’s all about decibels,” she says, “and a little mean-natured”—but she credits her Stanford degree for helping hone her argumentation skills. “It taught me how to write and speak in defense of a position, and what could count as evidence and what couldn’t.”

Maddow divides her time between New York City and western Massachusetts, where she keeps a home with partner Susan Mikula, an art photographer who works in Polaroid film. The weekends in New England keep Maddow close to her local-radio roots. “I miss local radio, that sense of being part of a community,” she says, citing an example from 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. She remembers announcing the news on air, prompting a celebratory rally at city hall. “That was a really potent way to learn the power of radio, and the responsibility of it,” she says. “You’re not some voice of authority and power somewhere—you’re a person talking into people’s ears. There’s no filter. People feel like they get to know you, so you ought to be worth knowing.”

BARRETT SHERIDAN, ’06, is a journalist at Newsweek International.

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