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Kelly Smith, Published September 20 2009

Ed Schultz leaves local airwaves behind for the big time

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – He’s a local guy who hit the big time.

But for liberal talk show host Ed Schultz, who started on local airwaves in 1979, gaining a TV show on cable’s MSNBC this year and keeping up with his national radio show meant coming to a tough realization: He had to give up local airtime.

And that’s not easy.

“I spent 30 years of my life broadcasting in Fargo. And that’s gone,” Schultz says. “I’ve had to come to grips with that. Fargo’s behind me now, and there’s a real sense of sadness for me in knowing that.”

On a recent rare break from his busy schedule, Schultz sat down with The Forum at his Minnesota lake home to reflect on his sometimes-controversial, hot-headed career and the past year.

Here, the conservative-turned-liberal talk show host contrasts from the larger-than-life personality seen on TV.

Sporting a casual shirt and shorts, Schultz talks slowly and quietly, appearing relaxed as he reclines in a wicker chair on his three-season porch boasting a panoramic view of Big Detroit Lake.

As he chats, his three sons and three daughters (ages 22 to 33) and seven grandchildren are on his pontoon and ski boat, soaking up the scenic lakes country where his 7,500-square-foot log home is nestled.

The serene setting is a far cry from the 27th-floor Manhattan apartment that’s become a second home. Overlooking a different body of water – the Hudson River – his New York City apartment is six blocks from his office at NBC studios.

It’s there, at 30 Rockefeller Center, where he often spends weekdays. Then, nearly every weekend, he and Wendy – his wife of 11 years who helps with public relations and producing – get on a plane for Minneapolis, then take his plane to Detroit Lakes.

About 4 a.m. on Mondays they take the trip in reverse.

Since starting the high-profile gig on liberal-leaning MSNBC six months ago, the 55-year-old originally from Virginia has gained a new outlook on his future – and lost 25 pounds.

In the shadows of MSNBC talk show hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, Schultz says he feels pressure to prove himself and keep up in the ratings game.

After attempts to start his own show in D.C. fell through, opportunity came calling with a phone call from MSNBC President Phil Griffin.

“I sold him. And he gave me a chance on the air,” Schultz says. “And the rest is history.”

Well, sort of.

Schultz was also trying to stay connected to Fargo.

In April, the former WDAY-TV sportscaster abruptly left KFGO radio, where he had worked off and on for years as a news talk show host.

Three months later, Schultz missed the “comfort level” of local radio and started a talk show at a Lisbon, N.D.-based station owned by right-wing talk radio host Scott Hennen. Schultz abandoned that after two weeks.

While Schultz has left the local market, he hasn’t left the local buzz, as rumors spread he had plans to sell his lake home and buy KFGO.

He maintains his plate is full with MSNBC’s three-year contract, a four-year contract left for his national radio show and another book due out next September on “saving America’s middle class.”

Turns out, after two hours of talking with Schultz about his lively life, the only time the fast-talking, loud TV personality comes through is when he talks politics.

While he once said “the Ed Schultz brand will never leave Fargo,” in some sense, after three decades, it has.

Here, in an edited transcript of our interview, he talks about his past, present and future.

On moving to New York

“It’s pretty exciting to be able to have an opportunity to broadcast in New York. I mean, where do you go after that? That’s it.

“I pinch myself every time I walk into 30 Rock. There’s not many people that go from Fargo to New York. And to get this opportunity, I mean, I’m absolutely humbled by it.”

On his MSNBC show

“When you get to that network level, there’s such a pressure and a concentration to stay there that it really enhances the work environment. It’s just a very intense environment. You can’t get comfortable and you can’t stop working.”

On why he wanted to do a cable TV show

“I wanted to increase the Ed Schultz brand, so I had to break into talk television. I never said, ‘Gosh, I have to get to New York.’ I wanted to create a television show, but I had no idea this was how it was all going to end up.

“This is about me proving I can do this. And this is about a real burning desire to succeed.”

On why he still wanted a Fargo radio show

“I still miss Fargo regional broadcasting. I don’t know. I think a lot of it has to do with this is where I cut my rug; these are my roots.”

On leaving KFGO radio

“I left KFGO because I physically didn’t think I could do a two-and-a-half-hour talk show and do a national show and do a TV show. I had to give it up. Nobody told me to leave. They were concerned that I couldn’t do a good job if I lived in Washington.

“I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to say goodbye to the audience. But I don’t hold any animosity or a grudge.”

On leaving Lisbon-based station after two weeks

“I thought I could do one hour a day. And it was just too much. I didn’t think it would be. It was an honest miscalculation on my part.

“I wasn’t mad at anybody. I just couldn’t do it. Scott (Hennen) is a pro. (Clashing with him) had nothing to do with it. I can see where people would think it; that’s an easy interpretation.

“It was embarrassing because I felt like I was surrendering – it’s so out of my character.

“No, (I didn’t tell managers about leaving). It was my airtime. Quite honestly, I wanted to announce it on air and handle it the way I wanted to handle it.”

On the rumor he’d sell lake home to buy KFGO

“You know, that is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. I have never had a conversation with anybody about purchasing KFGO. I don’t know where that came from. I don’t have that kind of money. I have no interest.”

On health care reform

“I’ve done about 15 town hall meetings in the last year. And the people have really affected me. You really feel obligated to keep up the fight.

“This health care issue is the fight of my life. I have to see this through. Now that I’m on the air every day, for the first time in my life I really feel I have the chance to make a difference … drive the debate, keep the discussion alive, bring the stories of the people to the screen.”

On being controversial

“That is one thing in my career that has kind of baffled me. I’m an opinionated guy. I’m well researched. I’m passionate. And those combinations I think probably bring out the best and the worst in other people.

“I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I enjoy being in the mix. I don’t look for ways to be controversial.”

On negative feedback and mellowing

“When I was first on television … I hated it when somebody said something bad about me when I was trying so hard. The skin’s a lot thicker now.

“I think one of my downfalls has been that maybe I’ve let some of my emotions get in the way of some of my thinking. But, for some reason, it’s always worked out OK.

“I think I’ve kind of mellowed over the years … in adversarial reaction to my work, but I haven’t changed my work habits.”

On leaving Fargo radio

“I don’t have any regrets on anything. I don’t leave conflicted at all. I’m sorry I can’t broadcast in this area anymore. But I’m just at a different level now. The pressure’s different, the expectations are high, and the performance has to be there.

“I’ve had a lot of great things happen to me in my career; I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve worked hard, but I’ve also had my share of luck.”

On his ultimate goal

“If I can hang on to this cable show for five years, I will have felt like I’ve really accomplished something professionally.

“My goal now is to keep ‘The Ed Show’ as long as I possibly can and make it a signature show, and make it a real stable addition to the MSNBC lineup.

“I don’t want to let them down. I want the self-satisfaction that I got to New York, and I made a difference and I was able to stick it out and hang on.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515