Straight Talk from the Heartland

First Chapter: The Voice of Liberty

Straight Talk from the Heartland: Tough Talk, Common Sense, and Hope from a Former Conservative

First Chapter: The Voice of Liberty

I have this vision. In it, all those right-wing radio talk show hosts and industry gurus who said progressive talk radio couldn’t make it are staring incredulously at the radio speaker with my voice booming out the unfiltered truth about what’s really going on in America. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid running for cover from a relentless posse, I hear them ask, “Who is that guy?”

It’s me. Big Eddie. The brain, the heart, and, yes, the mouth be­hind the fastest growing syndicated radio talk show in America: The Ed Schultz Show. They said we wouldn’t make it. They said it couldn’t be done. Yeah, well, here I am.

Let me tell you about myself. You already know my name: Ed Schultz. People call me Big Ed, and from the cover photo you can see I come by my nickname honestly. I’m big: 6′2″ and 250 pounds, although one of those statistics might be fudged. I’m fifty years old, and you can see I am devastatingly handsome. The truth is, the touch-up artist was probably hospitalized with carpal-tunnel syndrome after the work she did on my mug. I’m married for the second (and final) time to Wendy Schultz. Together, we have six kids from our respective first marriages—all adults, now.

How did a prairie-dwelling, red meat-eating, gun-toting former conservative become the hope of liberal radio? It all started with this annoying habit I have of speaking my mind. Sometimes when I open my mouth all hell breaks loose. Other times I feel like a voice in the wilderness and I wonder, “Does anybody get this?”

This time, the right man was listening.

Big Eddie was coming through loud and clear.

When Wendy and I attended the State of the Union Address in January 2003, we had no idea how profoundly it would change our lives and begin to re-sculpt the landscape of American talk radio. I came to Washington, D.C., unsettled by the changes in America. The economy was floundering. We were on the eve of war. The mainstream press had largely been cowed by the administration and a climate of fear that had allowed the Patriot Act to pass almost un­challenged and unread through Congress. The neocons had hi­jacked the Republican Party and, it seemed, America itself. The Democrats looked weak and ineffective.

Right-wing talk radio was spewing its propaganda relentlessly, de­crying liberals as unpatriotic, angry, hateful, and just plain loony. And it was working. Democrats were growing frustrated with the constant hammering they were taking: Three hours of Rush Lim­baugh. Three hours of Sean Hannity. Three hours of Michael Savage. Three hours of Michael Reagan. The list goes on and on. I believe if Rush Limbaugh had been a liberal in 2000, Al Gore would be presi­dent today. That’s the difference talk radio can make.

I don’t view this as a grand conspiracy, despite the fact that out of more than five hundred talk show hosts in America, only about forty are liberal or progressive. Rush Limbaugh made conservatism profitable. Some say he saved the AM dial, and maybe he did. But somewhere along the line, the industry got vapor-locked into believ­ing that progressive talk radio couldn’t survive and thrive in a nation split right down the middle between Democrats and Republicans.

I’m here to prove that isn’t so.

It all comes down to business and ratings. It doesn’t matter what your affiliation is. The big question is: Are people listening? We’re en­tertainers, not journalists. This isn’t brain surgery.

It’s simple. If you get ratings, you get to keep the job. Merchants line up to advertise on your show. It’s incredible: We sell thin air for hard cash. And Merlin thought he was a magician! I’m half-kidding. There’s real value in airtime. Listeners make decisions based on what they hear on talk radio. That’s why this is such a dangerous time for our nation. Talk radio today is dominated by a conservative mindset that is all too often mean-spirited and intentionally dishonest. There is no balance. America thrives on diversity of opinion. I truly believe that’s part of the reason we’re not thriving now. The America I love has become an America of haves and have-nots. There’s an economic greed machine at work here that is swiftly creating a two-class sys­tem. That worries me. Where’s the morality? Where’s the justice?

All of this dishonesty and imbalance in the media and the Bush administration was a real burr under my saddle when I arrived in Washington to watch President Bush deliver that State of the Union. I’d had enough! The day before the president’s speech, I was one of forty other liberal talk show hosts taking part in a seminar sponsored by Tom Athans, founder of Democracy Radio, an organization aim­ing to restore objectivity to talk radio.

As part of the program, the talk show hosts were asked to speak. I had no idea at the time that this was really an audition. Tom, a for­mer Congressional staffer and Air Force veteran, was looking for someone with the moxie to stand up against the juggernaut of right-wing radio. When I got on stage, I did what I always do—I let ’em have it. I said, “Democrats cannot combat nine hours of right-wing radio with a ten-second sound bite on the five o’clock news. It’s not going to work! You are being out-worked and out-organized. Until you fight back, you’re just going to keep getting beaten up!”

Afterward, Tom Athans pulled me aside. “You’re my guy,” he said, and then he told me about his dream to bring a progressive voice to America’s airwaves. It was far from easy, but today I have a nationally syndicated show, I’m on satellite radio, I’ve been featured on the Today show, the cable shows are calling, and Esquire made me the Man of the Month in February 2004. (I was against it until I found out I didn’t have to pose naked.) Is my head spinning? Sure. I made the leap from a regional talk show to the national stage.

Some people have tried to anoint me the savior of “liberal” radio. Look, big as my ego is, even I know that’s a reach. This is a start. Like the farmers in the heartland who feed this country, we’re plant­ing the seed. And it’s growing. But you know what? I am the right man for the job. It sounds boastful, but it’s a matter of confidence. I believe in myself. I am secure in my philosophy. Dizzy Dean said, “It ain’t braggin’ if yuh kin do it.” I think I can. I know I can.

The righties know it, too. Otherwise, why would the attacks be so virulent from Hannity and the gang? Even Limbaugh has started taking shots at me, calling me that “poor little guy” from North Dakota. Yeah, well, everybody has an opinion. Everyone I know has an opinion about me. I’m brash, egotistical, aggressive, passionate, big-hearted, talented, pugnacious, and meaner than a snake—those are some of the opinions. Like opinions on almost everything in America today, the ones about me are extreme.

So which one of those descriptions really applies to me? The truth is, probably all of them. I don’t toe any party line: I take my stands based on judgment, compassion, and good old horse sense, no mat­ter what I’m told I should believe. And today that really throws some people off. It’s ironic. Here I am, an average American, more blue collar than white, but I’m not allowed to be in the middle. In today’s America—especially on the political landscape—you’re supposed to be either right or left. Conservative or Liberal. We all get labeled and boxed, and you know what? That’s just plain dishonest. It doesn’t do me justice. It doesn’t do you justice. We’re more complicated than that. America is more than black and white. It is brown and yellow and red, white, and blue. That’s the honest truth.

Honesty. It’s a rare commodity in the media today. We hear half-truths. Omissions of the truth. We are intentionally misled. The truth may be right before our eyes, but some right-leaning talking head tells us it isn’t so, and too many people believe it. I can’t remem­ber a time when I had so little trust in what my leaders were telling me. Thank God for a free press, and yet even the media has fallen short. We don’t verify or challenge official sources nearly enough. If it looks like bullshit and smells like bullshit, it probably is bullshit. As an industry, we’re soft. And even when a journalist does ask ques-tions—simply asks questions—he is vilified as anti-American. Good journalism is almost against the law nowadays. When did seeking the truth become anti-American?

My point is that I always strive for honesty. My parents instilled it so deeply in me, I just don’t feel good if I don’t say what’s on my mind—even if it’s unpopular. Now that I’m writing my first book, I am intensely aware of how liberating and painful this project might be. Talking about the glory days is easy. Revealing the warts, exam­ining the contradictions, and exposing past bad behavior? It will hurt. But it will make for some good reading.

I’ll tell it like it is.

The prospect of writing this book truly humbled me. (Admittedly, the word humble has rarely appeared in the same sentence with the name Ed Schultz, but in this case I’ll make an exception.) After some people in New York publishing circles contacted me about writing a book, I protested, “I think if you write a book, you ought to have done something!” But my friends and my wife Wendy kept ticking off the list of things I’ve done and the places I’ve been, and it started to sink in that maybe I do have something to say. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do have a story to tell.

It’s more than the story of one man telling it like it is from a windy North Dakota prairie; it’s about what I’ve seen. It’s about the people I touch and those who touch me. Like the listener who e-mailed me to say, “I had to decide between buying milk or gas today.” Man, that hits home. These are my people, my listeners. I take my show on the road to Washington, D.C., and to the struggling rural communities that dot the landscape of the heartland. I make that effort every day because I’ve seen the poverty. I’ve seen the way the middle class in America is being gutted by a government that is increasingly by the rich and for the rich. My listener is the working stiff. Joe Six Pack. The mother who scrounges loose change because, when gas rises above $2 and milk is over four, she’s in a pinch. Life on Wall Street is great, but it’s life on Main Street that people are concerned about. My people have grease on their hands, sweat on their backs, and damn little to show for it.

Hell yes, I have a story to tell.

“You know why it never dawned on you to tell your story?” a friend said. “Because you’re so busy looking ahead, you never bother looking behind you.” Bingo. That’s me. That’s why I like the term progressive. It’s positive—optimistic—and that’s how I see myself. I have faith in America. I have faith in Americans. I know we’re smart enough to handle the truth. Once we understand the problem, we can fix it.

So I decided to write the book. I mean, how hard could it be? Lim­baugh did it. Hannity did it, and he even got most of the punctuation right. Though this book offers my own brand of good old-fashioned straight talk from the heartland, it would be short a few lines of common sense if not for Wendy. She and I met and married six years ago, the second marriage for each of us, and it is no exaggera­tion to say she changed—no, transformed—my outlook on life. She’s my most trusted advisor, my best friend.

It all started with a baloney sandwich.

My first date with Wendy was at the Salvation Army cafeteria in Fargo, North Dakota, where I live and work. She was this classically beautiful, blue-eyed blonde, who managed a homeless shelter. I was a hard-charging, what’s-in-it-for-me conservative radio talk show host. That’s right. I said conservative. Republican. A shade right of Atilla the Hun.

So there we were, Beauty and the Beast, dining on baloney sandwiches with the homeless. There were Vietnam War veterans, Gulf War veterans, and other hard-luck cases all around me: The King of Fargo Radio, in creased slacks and a crisp shirt, fresh from signing a big-money, ten-year contract with Clear Channel Radio. I was pretty full of myself when I walked through those doors that day.

I left feeling pretty small, and I’ll tell you why. More than once on the air I’d lambasted the homeless as lazy and the unemployed as freeloaders. In that moment, guilt swamped me. I got a lump in my throat, and it wasn’t the baloney. Then some of the guys recog­nized me.

“Hey, you’re Big Eddie!”

“You’re the man, Ed!”

Their adulation embarrassed me further. I didn’t see it then, but that Big Eddie was fading away. A baloney sandwich, a lovely blonde with wise eyes, and a group of straggly-haired homeless men: This reality check changed everything.

Those faces haunted me. I remember thinking to myself, “You know, maybe you’re not the most important thing in the universe.” I haven’t looked at the world in quite the same way since.

To this day, certain people question the sincerity of my move from “conservative” to “liberal.” They suspect that this was a career move. Huh. Some career move. In a medium dominated by hard-right talkers, what I was doing looked a lot like career suicide. But it was simply a change of heart. A recognition that the world had a few more shadows than I had noticed before. How could I not talk about that? I had to be true to myself. I had to be true to my listeners.

Now before we go any further down this path toward sainthood, let me assure you—I know others will—that I can still be a horse’s patoot. One of my most ignominious moments came in 1988, as I was doing radio play-by-play for North Dakota State University in Fargo. The Bison were playing Northern Michigan. There was some­thing in the air that September day. There was lots of drinking and rowdy behavior in the stands. By the fourth quarter, the crowd in front of the broadcast booth was getting ugly. Suddenly, a whiskey bottle came hurtling through the glass and struck my co-announcer, Gary Barta, in the belly. Glass rained down on us—all over me. It could have taken out my eye, and the close call enraged me.

We were live on the air, but to this day I don’t know exactly what I said. Some people say I spoke in a language Dick Cheney would understand. All I know is that I threw down my headphones and waded into the crowd looking for the person who threw the bottle. I almost got in a fight. I don’t think that I would have hurt anyone, but when someone like me does something like that, it makes news. The media lapped it up. Today, in North Dakota, it’s known as “The Bottle Incident.”

My bad behavior made it onto Paul Harvey, and it got me sus­pended. It’s a day I’d like to forget. But the truth of the matter is, my actions were fairly typical for someone out here in the heart­land. We settle things face to face—and nobody wants to take any crap from anyone.

I am not a cookie-cutter liberal. I don’t walk lock-step with any­one. I’ve got my own drum. Ed Schultz doesn’t break the stereotype. He kicks its ass and sends it home to Momma. Roll over Marconi and tell Rush Limbaugh the news: The hard right tilt of talk radio is listing back to port, one degree, one radio station, one listener at a time.

In this book, we’re going to discuss the issues that matter to you.

I’ll tell you about broadcasting from Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. It was by chance that Wendy and I were there. We were on the air, arguing for a decent Farm Bill for rural America, when plumes of black smoke rose from the Pentagon. I saw the shock, the tears, the confusion, and pandemonium. I saw children crying. I heard sirens blaring. Our world would never be the same.

I’ll tell you about the day I met Army National Guard specialist Jon P. Fettig’s family in Dickinson, North Dakota. Jon was the first North Dakotan lost in Iraq. I will never forget the look on his fa-ther’s face as he grappled with the loss of his son. I recall how heavily this weighed on Jon Fettig’s young widow. I still remember his father leaning over to me and saying in a choked voice, “We listen to you every day, Eddie.” Now here I was, invited into their community to share their sorrow. I kept saying, “God bless you,” because it’s at such times when God needs to be brought into war—after fine young sol­diers like Jon Fettig have fallen—not to justify war itself.

I’ll tell you about the proud ranchers and farmers in the Midwest who feed the nation and the world with livestock and grain but, in the grip of drought and uncertain commodity prices, struggle to feed themselves.

I worry about the very soul of this nation. This is the greediest generation America has ever seen. Man, I look around and wonder when we’re going to think about the next generation. What kind of world are we leaving them? The wealthy need a tax cut? Sure, break out the credit card and give our children the bill. Where’s the moral­ity the conservatives talk about? Lost in the relentless rush for profit at any cost, that’s where. And the middle class is getting trampled. Unchecked greed creates inequity. The hard slant of politics to the right has this country hurtling toward oblivion in ways most Amer­icans have yet to grasp. These are dangerous times for America.

A great country requires balance in all things. Balance. I’m not out to move the country to the left. I’d be thrilled if we could get back to the middle. The middle is okay. You hear that, America? You don’t have to be right or left. You can agree with both sides on some issues. I have some views that are viewed as Republican. Bullcrap. They’re my views. I’m not ceding them to anyone, and neither should you.

In 1998, a baloney sandwich changed my life.

This book is going to change yours.


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