In late 2002, Dorgan invited Schultz to a luncheon at the Capitol building with numerous Senate Democrats, during which Schultz gave a report from the frontlines of talk radio in America and played the senators a clip that showcased his attack-dog style. That turned into a second meeting, in January 2003, that brought the senators together with every liberal talker they could scrounge up, about 25 in all, including Schultz. The second meeting was organized by Tom Athans, the co-founder of Democracy Radio, a nonprofit whose mission was to bring ideological balance to the nation’s commercial radio outlets, and was meant to be a kind of audition to find that liberal counterweight to Limbaugh and the rest. Schultz treated it as exactly that.

“Ed just kind of took over the room,” Dorgan says. “He gave them a kind of a locker-room halftime talk. It was inspiring and eye-opening to people who were there.”

Schultz emerged with the blessing of many Senate Democrats, and it’s easy to see why: Here was a loud white guy from the Midwest, a defector from the enemy camp who sounded a hell of a lot like all the successful conservative talkers, but with a different message. A man who was himself the embodiment (some might say a caricature) of the very type of voter the Democrats were losing. Schultz soon became Athans’s official choice to bring liberalism to the radio waves. Athans, who at the time was married to Senator Debbie Stabenow, received help from his wife and her Senate colleagues as he raised money from private donors to get Schultz’s show into national syndication.

Democracy Radio’s startup money covered the show’s costs for a year, but it couldn’t force radio stations to carry the program. For its national premiere in January 2004, The Ed Schultz Radio Show broadcast from exactly two stations: Langden, ND, and Needles, CA. “We had no phone calls for like two or three weeks,” Schultz says. “We went to radio conventions and were laughed at.”

His conservative tough-guy past was billed as his biggest selling point. Schultz’s stock phrase, used at the top of his broadcasts, was that the audience was about to hear straight talk from a “gun-totin’, red-meat-eatin’ liberal.” And there were times when the newly anointed voice of progressivism had a hard time sounding like it. According to a 2004 profile in the Los Angeles Times, Schultz was “prone to say things like: ‘I’d like to see the president get all the illegals out of the country, so we can start all over again.’”

Despite the occasional bout of cognitive dissonance, the show eventually caught on in about 70 markets that first year.

A star is born

It is tempting to view everything Schultz does through the lens of football. In part this is because at heart, he is a natural athlete: a large-hearted exhibitionist who, having little interest in the vagaries of politics, operates on a field with clear allies and enemies, and thrives on the notion of a crowd rallying behind him. But part of it, too, is that Schultz often sounds like an ex-jock when he talks about himself and his career. “Aha, you bastards, I made it!” is how Schultz described his reaction to the growing success of his radio show. “It was that old jockstrap starting to come out again, you know? And I just had that fight and determination and belief that gritting the teeth and keeping going was winning for us.”

His satisfaction was soon replaced by that familiar restlessness—that desire to, as his high-school friend had put it, “be somebody.” Schultz’s ambitions naturally turned to television. After a day of fulminating at the radio station in Fargo, he says he would return to his lakeside home in rural Minnesota and redirect his ire at the cable-news shows. “I just would scream at the TV set: ‘Why can’t I get a chance to do that?’”

In 2007, Schultz bought a $150,000 satellite camera and had it installed in the Fargo radio station. Now the playing field between the heartland and the coasts was a bit more level, and Schultz began appearing as a talking head on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. “I had to make Ed Schultz a bigger brand if I was gonna do this,” he says.

In the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, Schultz went early for Obama, a decision he attributes in part to having grown up in Virginia during the civil rights era. “I carried a lot of water for Obama,” he says of his broadcasts during that time. “I pounded for him hard. I went after the Clintons. I went after every Democratic challenger.”

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.