Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who retired from the US Senate in 2011, was a firsthand observer of Schultz’s ideological drift, having been battered as a guest of the hostile, conservative Ed Schultz before later coming to know him as an ally. Dorgan was also a member of the Democratic leadership in the early aughts, a time when his party felt compelled to fight back against the right-wing talkers who dominated the national and local airwaves. This was the heart of the Bush era, and progressives were seething and on the defensive. The Republicans controlled the White House and Congress. Fox News was ascendant. Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, and a seemingly endless number of local doppelgängers were collectively reaching tens of millions of listeners, and there was no liberal counterweight. Thomas Frank would soon publish What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which solidified a thesis the Democrats deeply feared: As Frank put it, the American people were pissed off, and “the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: To the right, to the right, further to the right.”
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