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Progressive Profiles: With New TV Show, Radio Talker Thom Hartmann Brings Substance to Style

With an entrepreneurial spirit, knowledge of history and boundless energy, Hartmann brings the singular mix he honed on national radio to the cable news airwaves.

This is the first in a series of profiles of leading progressives in Washington, D.C.

It's 9pm in the middle of a busy week and Thom Hartmann, the nation's most popular progressive talk radio host, is just sitting down to dinner with his wife Louise at a crowded Washington restaurant.

As host of "The Thom Hartmann Program" (heard on 120 affiliates, according to the show's Web site), Thom did his customary three hours of radio earlier in the day, and just wrapped up an episode of his hour-long daily cable television program, "The Big Picture," which airs on RTTV and was just picked up by Free Speech TV, which runs the show over the Dish and DirecTV networks. (It's also available from iTunes in podcast form.) It's a typical 14-hour day for Hartmann, but he's hardly worse for the wear. At 59, he looks at least 10 years younger, and his energy is still bubbling over. Louise, just back from a day at the hospital with a friend who rushed there in an emergency, begs off the interview, wanting nothing more than a quiet meal after a stressful day.

The Hartmanns are new to the nation's capital, drawn here from Oregon by the television deal with RTTV, which includes the brand-new, state-of-the-art studio where "The Big Picture" is produced, near the National Press Building, not far from the White House. Louise handles much of the business end of the show, while Thom is the on-air personality. The staff also includes a producer, director and researchers. The Hartmanns have complete editorial control of the show, which appears on RT and is produced in its facilities through a licensing agreement with the network. The RT network was launched in 2005 as a Russian counterpart to the BBC News Channel, Al Jazeera and France 24.

For the radio program, the Hartmanns have built a new studio on Capitol Hill.

On the short walk from the RTTV studios to the restaurant, we've already talked about four books and a couple of the founding fathers. Thom shows me the books he's downloaded to his smart phone. I notice The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Thom has a theory about Franklin: The founder, he says, had attention deficit disorder. Hartmann is something of an expert on the subject.

"He's the poster child for ADD," Thom says of Franklin. "And if he didn't have ADD, we wouldn't have the United States of America."

"Franklin was all over the map," he continues. "He never held a job more than five years in his life, he had three or four different careers...In my first book on ADD there's a whole chapter about Ben Franklin."

That's right, his first book on ADD; there are several in the Hartmann bibliography -- part of a total of 21 books he's authored on subjects ranging from spirituality to progressive politics to the Kennedy assassination. In fact, his observations about Franklin's condition could well apply to Thom Hartmann himself; his careers have ranged from ad man to social reformer, electronics repairman to author. The one constant has been that all these enterprises were created and run by Thom and Louise together -- including the radio show, which, according to Talkers magazine, the chronicle of the talk radio industry, reaches 2.75 million unique listeners per week. The Hartmanns own "The Thom Hartmann Program," which is syndicated by Dial Global (which also carries big right-wing talkers such as Neil Boortz and Michael Smerconish, as well as top liberals like Ed Schultz and Bill Press), as well as by Pacifica Radio. The show is also simulcast in television format by Free Speech TV.