Among highly paid primetime cable hosts who commute weekly by private jet between rural Minnesota and Manhattan, Ed Schultz is as close to a perennial underdog as you could find. Schultz, the star of The Ed Show on MSNBC and one of the most popular liberal hosts in talk radio, has a talent for taking embattled positions that, after much sweating and shouting, become ideal vehicles for his carefully cultivated image as the one liberal loud and mean enough to stand up for the working man. He’s both revered and hated as the media’s most outspoken champion of the beaten-down labor movement. And he first came to national prominence in 2004, when he began what is now a nearly decade-long struggle to reverse the fortunes of progressive talk radio, where the most popular liberal hosts air on fewer than 100 affiliates, while Rush Limbaugh, the right’s top talker, is on 600.

One area where even Schultz can’t cast himself as underdog, for the moment at least, is ratings. After briefly moving from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. in the primetime reshuffling that followed Keith Olbermann’s parting ways with MSNBC in 2011, The Ed Show finally settled in at 8 p.m., and went on to have an impressive year in 2012. The “fat, red-headed guy from Fargo,” as Schultz refers to himself, handily beat the more camera-friendly Anderson Cooper in that timeslot. And while it seems no one ever will top Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, Schultz earned MSNBC its best 8 p.m. ratings among the coveted 25-to-54 demographic since 2009.

But even as Schultz’s audience grows, he’s beginning to look out of place in an MSNBC lineup that is increasingly the domain of a wonky, erudite liberalism that is about as far from Schultz’s fired-up everyman persona as 30 Rock is from Fargo. MSNBC President Phil Griffin has been working to make the network’s brand more recognizable and coherent, and Brian Stelter, who covers the television industry for The New York Times, reported in November that anonymous sources within MSNBC had told him Schultz might be kicked out of primetime in favor of the wunderkind Ezra Klein. MSNBC denied it at the time, and when I recently suggested to Griffin that the MSNBC brand seemed to be moving away from Schultz, he disagreed: “I think we’re always tinkering and evolving the brand. But I think Ed fits in there. And I think it’s very important to have that voice talking about the issues the way Ed does.”

Most likely, the contrast Schultz provides will remain popular with management for exactly as long as it remains popular with viewers, but a look at the heart of MSNBC primetime reveals an undeniable trend: At 10 p.m. there is Lawrence O’Donnell, a Harvard grad and former chief of staff of the Senate Finance Committee; Rachel Maddow, a former Rhodes Scholar who writes books with words like “unmooring” in the subtitle, is at 9 p.m.; and leading off is Schultz, a former NCAA Division II passing champion and owner of Big Eddie’s North Country Lodge, which offers fishing vacation packages in northern Manitoba. MSNBC’s weekend lineup, which the network considers a farm team for primetime, includes the decidedly un-Schultzian Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane.

It’s enough to make you wonder how Schultz ended up here in the first place.

The grinder

There’s one powerful interest group responsible for ensuring that Schultz has a live mic pointed at his mouth for four hours every weekday, and its name is Ed Schultz. He had help along the way, of course, including from some powerful entities (MSNBC and the Democratic Party chief among them) that felt they had something to gain by harnessing themselves to his ambition. But there certainly were more likely candidates for the job.

This out-of-nowhere quality has been a theme throughout Schultz’s life. When he was a high school quarterback in Norfolk, VA, his singular focus was to become a professional football player—a long shot under the best of circumstances but especially so in Schultz’s case. “He was not a natural athlete,” a high school friend told The Virginian-Pilot in 2004, “but he was a grinder. He was real driven. He always had an idea he was going to be somebody, and he’d work as hard as it took to get there.”

After winning the Division II passing title while quarterbacking for Minnesota State University Moorhead, Schultz fielded calls from NFL scouts and felt a pro career was imminent. But he would have to wait another 30 years before he made it to primetime. In his 2004 book, Straight Talk from the Heartland, Schultz called the NFL draft of 1978, which he watched with high hopes only to be passed over by every team, “the worst experience of my life.” He later signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders and, after being cut, briefly played professionally in Canada before taking a final shot with the New York Jets. In 1979, he abandoned his gridiron dream without ever having played a down in the NFL.

Broadcasting was Schultz’s backup plan. When he was a college quarterback, the sports journalists in Moorehead, MN, and Fargo, ND, which is right across the border, realized that Schultz was fairly articulate—a rare commodity on the football field—and encouraged him to someday give broadcasting a try. In the fall of 1979 he did, eventually landing at WDAY, a radio and TV news station in Fargo. As the voice of North Dakota State University football and basketball, he became the most controversial play-by-play announcer in Fargo history, at one point screaming into a live mic before leaping from the broadcast booth to chase after a guy who had thrown a whiskey bottle at him. Over the next decade, as Schultz provided the soundtrack for a rotating cast of obscure college players, Rush Limbaugh was proving that conservative political talk-radio could be at least as entertaining and lucrative a blood sport as football.

Schultz, the guy who had no chance in the NFL but got there, sort of, anyway, was never going to be satisfied on the lower rungs of his new profession. He began to fill in as a talk-radio host on WDAY in 1988, the same year Limbaugh’s show had its national premiere. By 1996, Schultz, now at crosstown rival KFGO, had established himself as the right-wing shock jock of the Great Plains. His favorite targets included the homeless (“how about getting a job?”), the unemployed (“freeloaders”), and farmers (“The American farmer’s hat is bent from being stuck in the mailbox waiting for the government check”).

What came next sounds a bit like the liberal talk-radio version of a superhero-creation myth. In 1998, just two years after starting his talk show, “News and Views,” Schultz met a psychiatric nurse named Wendy Noack, who would become his second wife. Noack worked a second job running a homeless shelter for the city of Fargo, and insisted that Schultz meet her at a soup kitchen on their first date. The experience of eating a baloney sandwich while surrounded by downtrodden men whom he was paid to lambast on the air rattled Schultz’s conservative worldview, and he began what he describes as a period of soul-searching that lasted several years. During this time, he made multiple trips around his coverage area in a 38-foot RV dubbed “The Big Eddie Cruiser,” visiting with struggling farmers and other members of America’s underclass who were largely absent from media coverage during the tech boom of the ’90s. Schultz emerged from this period a changed man.

“I don’t think anyone wakes up one day and says ‘I’m a liberal,’” Schultz admits. “But I underwent a number of grassroots experiences that brought me around to a different perspective.”

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 doppelg√§ngers 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

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.”

He’s convinced his support did not go unnoticed. After Obama won, Schultz put his name on the list to attend the first presidential press conference. He arrived at the event and learned that he had been assigned a seat in the front row, right next to Helen Thomas. “That was the Obama people saying thanks,” he says. “I know it was. I know it was.”

Phil Griffin was watching that press conference, and was surprised to see Big Eddie, who had pitched him to get on the network in the past, front and center. Griffin had his assistant set up a meeting in Georgetown, which, as he had with the Senate Democrats, Schultz turned into an audition. “I came out of that conversation pumped up about what Ed was saying and about what he could bring to the network,” Griffin says. “I wanted a voice like that.”

The Ed Show debuted in April 2009. In early meetings about the show, Schultz says he told MSNBC management, “I want to tell a story about what America needs. And what America needs right now is a voice for the middle class.”

Throughout the first year of his show, Schultz brought his fire-breathing style to the debate over healthcare reform, hammering relentlessly for the public option and quickly establishing his progressive bona fides. Years later, his audience still remembers him for it. Every Schultz fan I talk to brings up healthcare—and Schultz’s mother, who died of Alzheimer’s, and his wife, whose battle with cancer Schultz discussed on the air. The personal connection people feel to the man is undeniable. As Schultz put it, in his industry “they’ve gotta like the talent.”

During much of 2011, Schultz shifted his focus to the fight against the anti-collective bargaining legislation proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as a way to balance the state’s budget. Schultz frequently broadcast live from the protests in Madison. It was a watershed moment for the labor movement, for both political parties, and for Schultz and MSNBC. Sure, the network had Rachel Maddow and a growing backbench from the Ivy League. But here was Ed Schultz doing exactly what Ed Schultz was meant to do, handing his megaphone to the voice of the liberal street, so to speak.

One broadcast stands out. In it, Schultz, bundled against the February Wisconsin cold, struts in front of a crowd of shouting protestors and delivers a rant, not against Scott Walker or the Koch brothers (the conservative billionaires who helped get Walker elected), but against Rush Limbaugh, the man who helped inspire him to abandon sports for politics.

After playing a clip of Limbaugh calling the Wisconsin protesters “freeloaders,” Schultz unloads on the right-wing talkers: “If you want to follow the Limbaughs and the Becks of the world, and you want to turn your back on firefighters, turn your back on police officers, turn your back on nurses, turn your back on brothers and sisters who have stood in solidarity to fight for the middle class in America? Is that wrapping yourself in the flag? Hey Rush, why don’t you wrap your fat ass in the flag on Monday?”

The crowd roared.

Like much of Schultz’s work, this segment was more symbolism than specifics. (The speech was largely about firefighters, who, though outspoken among the protestors, were exempt from Governor Walker’s collective-bargaining proposal.) And in its obsession with Schultz’s media rivals, the rant was at least as much about Schultz as it was about the Wisconsin workers. But Schultz went on to interview a number of protesters, something that consistently separated him from others in the MSNBC primetime lineup during this long-running story. Most of cable-news talk is, of course, a multibillion-dollar vehicle for the personality and opinions of the hosts. Say what you will about Schultz, he is one of the very few hosts who consistently puts a microphone in front of Americans who aren’t currently employed as political operatives, and he is at his best when he does so.

The Times’s Brian Stelter says, “Seeing Ed Schultz on television makes a viewer think, ‘Wow. Where are the other guys like him?’ I personally didn’t recognize the dearth of labor coverage presented from a pro-labor point of view until Ed started doing it on television.”

At the same time, Stelter continues, “When MSNBC talks about its brand, it talks about Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell and Chris Hayes. It doesn’t talk as often about Ed Schultz.”

It’s arguable that, just as the Democrats viewed Schultz as the right man for the job during the heart of the Bush years, MSNBC is beginning to view others as a better fit in the age of Obama. Schultz’s bombast, which resembles the Fox News style of the 2000s, was once the hallmark of opinionated cable news. But now, perhaps, MSNBC sees a different way forward, and is building a lineup in the sober, technocrat image of the current administration.

If the prospect of this troubles Schultz, he isn’t saying. For the first time in his life, Ed Schultz feels he has no higher plane to reach. He’s finally gotten to play those big-league downs he aspired to since high school.

Sitting with Schultz in his radio studio in 30 Rock, a small room along one of the building’s long hallways, I asked him what, in a career marked by a constant restlessness—for more airtime, more audience, more money, another medium, a bigger impact—he hoped to do next. “I want to have a show that’s the best it can be at eight o’clock,” he said. “After this, what else is there? There aren’t many people who get to this level.”

And then the intro music kicked in, signaling the end of the commercial break, and Big Eddie turned back to the mic.

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