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Rachel Maddow: Out on Air America, shaking up the airwaves

by Julie A. Weisberg

Smart, funny, talkative and out: Rachel Maddow has something to say and she wants you to listen.

Maddow -- a rising progressive voice amid the straight, white male-dominated conservative echo chamber that is talk radio -- has become an important pillar in Air America Radio's daily line up and relaunch last month as the host of the highly rated "The Rachel Maddow Show"

A staple on the network since it first hit the airwaves in March 2004, Maddow, 34, has carefully crafted and cultivated her own approach to talk radio -- a daily show infused with humor, fast-paced news segments and thoughtful interviews -- an approach that has allowed the drive-time talker with strong roots in HIV/AIDS and gay rights activism to expand and enhance her audience base and market.

JULIE A. WEISBERG is an award-winning reporter and freelance writer based in Newtown, CT. She is a regular contributor to publications in both the mainstream and alternative press. In addition to her freelance work, Ms. Weisberg has spent several years as a reporter in the newsrooms of three weekly newspapers in Connecticut.

Julie may be visited on the web at:

"My show doesn't sound like any other talk radio show in the country as far as format. I don't take calls, I am scripted, we do 23 stories in 74 minutes. I just don't have a rant and then open the phones. It is a real challenge to radio programmers to hear this super-fast-moving, content rich, scripted, really highly-produced show, and fit it in among all the other radio that sounds so different than that," she said. "But the people who have have had rating rewards."

And while Maddow's sexual orientation is no secret to her regular listeners, she said she tends to discuss queer issues far less than her straight progressive counterparts "not by design, but just because of what I am interested in."

"I am really interested in war and foreign policy and electoral issues... I absolutely do tremendously care about HIV issues, and prison issues and gay issues -- but what I have found is that when I am really personally invested in a political issue, I do my least effective radio about those topics," she explained. "I talk about AIDS issues less than I should, given the importance of AIDS issues right now, and that's largely because I find myself ineffective at them, because I don't have good perspective about how to make it newsworthy for someone else. I know too much information about it, and so my perspective is not at all like that of an average Joe. And I therefore find it very hard to talk about it in a way that will draw other people in...when we get down to stuff that I am really, actively engaged in -- and that if I left radio I would go back to do full time activism on -- I am at my least effective."

Maddow added that while she has done some "gay specific-programming" through fill-in work at Sirius Satellite Network's LGBT station OutQ, she was "not very good at it.""I mean, yes, I am a gay person, but gay niche radio? They are straight hosts out there who are a lot better at that than me. I am good at explaining why the immigration bills never got passed, or doing cocktail recipes or talking about horse racing," she said with a laugh. "I may not be very good at it, but I am totally out. And that to me is even more radical. To say, 'Hey, I'm a big lesbian, and you can get your news from me instead of from NPR,' is to some extent a more radical statement... by the virtue of the fact that I am gay, every time I open up my mouth, what they hear me talking about is something gay."

More recently, Maddow has translated her radio success into frequent guest appearances on cable news channels such MSNBC and CNN -- including a regular gig as a political analyst on "Countdown with Keith Olbermann." But Maddow said that success in television, unlike radio, is heavily dependent upon an individual's optics.

"I 100 percent believe that the reason that I have not gone further in television is not only because I am gay, but because of what I look like. I am not a Barbie girl with Barbie doll-like looks. Because in television, what you look like is a huge deal," she said, adding that the only anti-gay sentiments she has received in her radio career is from "cranky old homophobes who listen to the show and say, 'That Maddow, all she talks about is the gays.'"

"People have asked me in the past, 'Do you feel a lot of pressure to echo the talking points of the gay political groups?' And I am like, 'which gay political groups? They are working on something and have talking points? I had no idea. Nobody called me," she said. "And it's like that on the whole left. We [Air America] are not part of some media conspiracy. And would that we were, I would blow the whistle on it... We are alone on the AM dial."

Instead, she said, the AM radio dial is filled with gaggles of conservative voices, most of whom are part of the Republican Party's media megaphone of talking points.

"These talking points then are not only spoken by candidates, but echoed on Fox News and echoed across the spectrum of right-wing talk radio -- which is legion -- and now picked up on right-wing blogs and in the right wing media like the Wall Street Journal editorial page. And the right-wing weeklies, which are now so important, and picked up by right-wing pundits on television, like Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan, and the rest of the real right-wingers," she explained. "Just to be able to have that entire universe of media, all parroting the same focus group tested anti-liberal message, is very powerful.

"And to the extent that Air America is one new niche that is not part of that echo chamber, I think is a little bit of a chink out of their, it is a wrench in their works, in that they cannot count on us like they can all the others, to do their work for them... You know, I would love to get talking points from the Democratic Party, but they are not organized enough to get them to me. Not that I would use them, but wouldn't it be awesome if they were trying to get me to?"

MaddowThe nation's first out Rhodes Scholar finds a voice on radio

So, how does a self-described butch dyke from California -- out and proud since her early days as a student and HIV/AIDS activist at Stanford University -- get to be one of the newest left-wing media darlings? Certainly not by design.

"I never intended to go into media of any kind," Maddow said. "I had pursued a real activist career, and an academic career... but I ended up falling in love with this radio thing."

After receiving a degree in public policy from Stanford University in 1994, the following year Maddow became the first openly-gay American to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

"It's a little-known fact that most talk radio hosts are Rhodes Scholars," she said with a chuckle.

After spending some time living in London in pursuit of her political science doctorate from Oxford University, Maddow returned to the U.S. to complete her dissertation. She then temporarily relocated to western Massachusetts from California, she said, to ensure she would remain focused on her academic work.

"I was 26, and I wanted to live somewhere where I wouldn't be tempted with staying, to just finish my dissertation and get on with my activist career," she said, adding that during this time she had taken on a series of odd jobs to support herself.

"I was mostly living there because they let me stay with them without paying rent," she said with a laugh.

But it was while she was living in Massachusetts that Maddow first discovered talk radio. Maddow said she began to listen to a local progressive morning radio show on WRNX. At one point, the show's hosts announced that it needed a new sidekick to read the morning news. With the encouragement of friends, she applied.

"It was an open, on-air audition," Maddow remembered. "And I got hired on the spot."

From there, Maddow went on to host a morning show on WRSI, another western Massachusetts station, for a couple of years. When she heard about the creation of Air America Radio, Maddow said, she knew she had to be a part of it.

"I kind of banged on doors and wouldn't take no for an answer," she said. "And they ended up hiring me."

Maddow quickly went to work along side comedienne Lizz Winstead and rap legend Chuck D as co-hosts of the daily morning show "Unfiltered."

The show was cancelled by Air America in March 2005, but a few weeks later, "The Rachel Maddow Show" was born as an hour-long, early morning talk show -- which also included daily bits and segments performed by award-winning comedy writer Kent Jones. Jones remains an important part of the show.

Then, in January 2006, the show was extended to two-hours. More recently, Air America programmers moved it to the 6-8 p.m. drive time slot, where it has become one of the highest-rated progressive talk radio shows in New York City..

"I feel incredibly lucky. It is a very short list for those of us who have survived all the changes at Air America," Maddow said. "I have had good support from the management... And I have been very willing to be flexible, and move around the schedule."

She added, however, that she is hopeful the show will remain at its current time slot into the future. This, Maddow said, would allow her to continue to maintain and grow her current audience.

Although Maddow said she was unsure how important talk radio will be in helping to influence the outcome of the 2008 Presidential race, it is an important and serious time for the nation -- and there are an endless supply of headlines to bring to the listeners' attention.

"I keep expecting it to all fall apart, and go back to my life as an activist," she said of her radio career. "But so far, it has worked out."


Originally published on Tuesday June 19, 2007.

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