NEW YORK—“She’s great on radio, but she was made for TV,” says Matthew Zeidman, an audio assistant at MSNBC.
“Her brainpower is just unreal,” says executive producer Bill Wolff, edgily relaxing in his office before all hell breaks loose. “She’s running around you while you’re just going forward.”
They’re talking about Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” which launched Sept. 8 and airs weekdays 9 to 10 p.m. She’s also the host (since 2004) of the radio show with the same name that airs weekdays 6 to 9 p.m. on Air America (and on XM Satellite Radio). She also blogs for the Huffington Post.
Maddow, 35, also is a Rhodes scholar with a D.Phil. in political science from Oxford; she wrote her dissertation on AIDS activism in prisons. She’s also writing a book on American militarism since 1989.
She’s also “a contacts virgin. Takes me 15 minutes to get the things in, so excuse me,” she says just before airtime one night, stepping over an exploded suitcase of clothes strewn around her office. “When next you see me, I’ll be in my big-girl, serious-adult uniform.”
Maddow (MAD-oh, rhymes with dough) is the latest of a crop of talk-radio hosts—like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck—who have roosted at cable news. Her show, like theirs, is part monologue, part guest chat, part news analysis, part production number, part puncture-the-enemy’s-thought-balloons.
As Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, points out, “This is talk radio on TV.” But then he adds: “It is unusual to have a woman in this role.” A gay woman with her own lefty pundit show, following Keith Olbermann, no less.
“That she happens to be the first openly gay woman to do so makes what Rachel has accomplished here that much more gratifying,” says Neil G. Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
The show is enjoying early success. From Sept. 15 to 19, her second week on the air, she outdrew even the mighty Olbermann (MSNBC’s flagship success) twice, and beat Larry King on CNN, becoming the No. 2 cable show for the week behind Fox News’ “Hannity & Colmes,” according to TVByTheNumbers.com.
Maddow’s entry into radio has become instant legend: Running out of scholarship money, “crashing at friends’ houses” in Massachusetts, trying to finish her dissertation, she entered a contest to get a show at a local radio station. In her words, “I did an on-air open audition, got hired on the spot, and started the next day.” Her popularity soared, and in 2004 Air America lured her away.
Maddow soon was guesting on Tucker Carlson’s shows on MSNBC and with Paula Zahn on CNN. MSNBC tabbed her as a regular during the presidential primaries, and so did Olbermann. She more than held her own, genially shredded the likes of Chris Matthews, Olbermann and Pat Buchanan. MSNBC president Phil Griffin soon announced she’d get her own show.
So what does she do well? Wolff points to her work ethic (“there can’t be anyone in this business who works harder”), intellect (see above), and personality. That is where Maddow is singular: She manages to charm even while wading into the fray with both halves of her brain. A partisan (some would say smug) woman in a shouting, angry-man’s world, she is trenchant and assertive without being nasty. Rosenstiel says, memorably, that with Maddow, “there’s a softer quality to the cutting edge.”
Ruth Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, says, “Maddow is smart and surgically incisive—yet she doesn’t take herself overly seriously. ... She enjoys the ‘gotcha’ aspect less than sifting through the info, throwing up her hands, and saying, ‘Can you believe this?’”
When contacted, Fox News declined to allow Sean Hannity, Maddow’s time-slot competition, to comment. But Philadelphia talk-radio captain Michael Smerconish of WPHT-AM, a man somewhat on the other side of politics from Maddow, worked both party conventions with her on MSNBC.
“I sat next to her for ‘Race for the White House,’” Smerconish says. In Denver, site of the Democratic convention, “the live audience would call out her name. I didn’t expect that to happen in St. Paul, but it did. She’s struck a chord, and I am not surprised. I like her. She’s smart, politically knowledgeable and not grating. Even when we disagree, I can appreciate her point of view.”
Not that she doesn’t have her detractors. A National Review media blog calls her “condescending,” and critics left and right see her as a “second hour of Olbermann” who “doesn’t bring anything new to the table.” Most resonant was Sacha Zimmerman of the New Republic, who was “not so thrilled about this trend toward partisan networks and news. ... It seems that we are more and more retreating to our comfortable trenches and refusing to acknowledge anything but spite, paranoia and conspiracy theory when it comes to the other side. I think Maddow will be a wonderful host. ... but how exciting is it really if she is just preaching to the choir?”
And Rosenstiel points out that her show does not really diverge from a polarized and polarizing cable-talk culture in which all becomes fodder for the grouse machine.
Look first at her posture. She is tall, and directs herself in a “let’s-talk” fashion to the camera. She leans forward with declarative energy yet nevertheless projects relaxed poise. She seldom shouts.
Her delivery is talk-radio Americana-meets-Oxford. Prodigiously articulate, she can talk at lightning pace with (scary) argumentative precision and humor. Argument is one of her chief loves: “I revel in pointing out what’s wrong with bad arguments, and I take great creative and intellectual satisfaction in creating good new ones.” She also relishes humor; an amused grin is seldom off her face.
Behind the scenes, technocracy meets mobocracy. While Maddow holds forth with manic poise before the cameras, an imperfect storm rages in the control booth, where about a dozen production staff, including Wolff and executive producer Matt Saal, orchestrate what actually appears on your screen. Electric is the tension. Saal calls out camera shots: “Pretty! Change! Hate it, Robbie, I hate it. ... OK, better.”
While taking phone calls and e-mails (presumably from bosses and highly placed kibitzers), in constant earpiece contact with Maddow, they Google every fact she utters on the fly, correct errors, feed her tidbits (“Make a joke about being competent,” Saal suggests, and seconds later, she does, at John McCain’s expense), encourage her (Saal: “Tell her great job, great, great, great, great, great!”), applaud her improvisations and her guests’ zingers (such as when New York Times columnist Frank Rich refers to Sarah Palin as “a less talented Mike Huckabee”). Cheers go up when it’s noticed that CNN has just now gotten around to a breaking story that led tonight’s show: that Palin’s camp had said she would refuse to cooperate with the “Troopergate” investigation.
That’s what’s behind Maddow when she takes the chair for her show: TV scrambling to be cyberfast, cybernew. Producer Wolff: “The Net owns what’s new. So if you can own something new, even if it’s only for 10 minutes, that’s a lot.”
Still wired a half-hour after her show, Maddow smilingly non-relaxes in her office. She calls her transition from radio to prime-time cable “a big, steep learning curve,” from “the very monastic process” of radio, where “it is me and one producer,” to the most pressurized medium on the planet, “a cast of thousands, all these ambitious and talented people whose job it is to put this show on the air.”
“I’m new here,” Maddow says. “We don’t know what the work flow is yet, I don’t know the time scripts need to be finalized, or second- or third-drafted. We haven’t figured all that stuff out, and also we’re trying new stuff every day.”
Today the scripts had reached her early, and she thought she was set—when, only minutes before airtime, the Palin refusal story broke. “I’m in there getting makeup,” Maddow says, “and it’s like, ‘Sorry, the first half hour of the show? Bye.’”
Maddow lives a nutso life now, in a “closetlike” pied-a-terre in Manhattan M-through-F, home in Massachusetts for the weekends. So when asked her dearest ambition, she names not show(s) or book or blog but rather a dream of domestic bliss with her girlfriend, artist Susan Mikula. She wants Mikula (who works as an accountant) someday to do art full time.
“I believe in my heart of hearts,” Maddow says, laughing, “that I can train my dog to turn off the light in the bedroom at night. ... So that is the five-year plan: home on the weekends, dog turns off the lights, Susan does more art.”