Thom Hartmann's Unusual Approach to Progressive Media Nets Big Audience Without Big Names
There are only a half-dozen or so media personalities who have both a nationally syndicated radio show and a nightly program on cable television, and most of them are superstar conservatives like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. Perhaps the least known is Thom Hartmann, a familiar voice to progressives who is nonetheless largely unheard-of among the broader public. For the last year, Hartmann has been trying to thread a difficult needle. Can he reach the top echelon of political media stars while retaining an outside-the-Beltway sensibility that finds the work of activists and organizers more compelling than the work of senators and congressmen? And can he do it from, of all places, Washington?
It's 30 seconds to air, and Hartmann allows himself a quick yawn before the camera light turns on. At 7:30 pm eastern standard time, Hartmann will start his one-hour television show, having already done three hours on the radio that afternoon. Television brought Hartmann to the nation's capital, and he's hoping that it will bring him the kind of media stature that has been just out of his reach for years. The radio-industry magazineTalkers pegs Hartmann as the most important progressive radio host in the country, putting his audience at more than three million listeners per week. More than 150 stations around the country broadcast his show. With his wife, Louise, who produces his programs, Hartmann has remained independent, owning his shows and cobbling together a series of deals with private radio companies and groups like Pacifica Radio and Free Speech TV to carry him.
But despite that success, chances are that most of the influential people in his new hometown have barely heard of Hartmann. That's partly because his take on politics is less about the inside game and more about citizen empowerment. It's also because in the corridors of power, it's television that confers prestige, even if the audiences are relatively small, as they are for most cable shows. So when Hartmann had the chance in late 2010 to get his own TV show—even if it required an unusual arrangement with an upstart, foreign-owned network—he packed up his life in the gentler environs of Portland, Oregon, and moved to what he calls "the belly of the beast."
Hartmann starts each day at his radio studio, then hops across town to the television studios of RT, a network formerly known as Russia Today. The network began its U.S. operations by airing Russian programs for the immigrant community but has recently tried to turn itself into something like a version of Al Jazeera English, a true international news organization with lots of U.S.-centered content that just happens to be owned by the Russian government. Hartmann is a bit defensive about the fact that this is where his program airs, but he labors to make clear the particulars of his relationship with the network. He owns his program, and RT has no editorial say in its content. RT gets an hour of nightly programming from him, and Hartmann in turn gets his show on cable systems across the country. He also gets to use RT's Washington facilities to produce the show.
And those facilities are ample indeed. Unlike your typical cable talk fest with its simple visuals (host in one half of the screen, remote guest in the other half), Hartmann's show employs multiple cameras, including one operated with a boom and one on a Steadicam. The latter's operator swoops around the host and guests, generating a somewhat kinetic feeling to what is, after all, a couple of people sitting at a desk talking. Over the course of the show, Hartmann gets up and sits back down multiple times, going between a series of screens and taking the camera for walks (no chalkboard, though) as he introduces a series of bite-size segments with names like "The Good, the Bad, and the Very, Very Ugly." The result is a show that looks as sleek as any of the other nightly cable-news offerings. In addition to the RT channels, "The Big Picture With Thom Hartmann" also airs on Free Speech TV, becoming available to millions of other households.
Slick as it may look, Hartmann's show is different from the other cable programs in one immediately obvious way: the guest list. On the night I visited the studio, his guests included a pair of Occupy Wall Street participants (one of whom donned a Union soldier's cap for the occasion) and two women representing the new nation of South Sudan, whose imperfect command of English and quiet voices made for something less than the kind of "hot" discussion between partisans one might find over at Fox or CNN. Hartmann acknowledged that the topic might not be a ratings-grabber, but he didn't seem to mind (Sudan is a particular interest of his, since he has visited the county multiple times doing aid work). Though Hartmann covers the pressing political issues of the moment, the journalists he brings on are more likely to hail from Alternet than fromThe New York Times. Perhaps most important, he has almost no interest in hosting politicians on his radio or television shows.
"There are a couple of progressive shows that do a lot of suck-up interviews with Democratic politicians, but they're in the minority. And we've never been one of them," Hartmann says. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders comes on Hartmann's radio program once a week to field questions from listeners, but "he's the only politician that we have on the program with any regularity at all." Asked whether he'd like to have more politicians on, Hartmann says, "I don't want them on the show, frankly, and here's why… if you get a politician on who voted in a crappy way on one piece of legislation but is pushing another piece of legislation right now, they don't like it if you try and challenge them on the crappy legislation they did last week. But your listeners get really upset if you don't. And frankly, there's a certain lack of integrity if you don't. Early on in the show, I would try to get big-name politicians when we could, and I got a couple of senators on and managed to piss them off pretty thoroughly."
In Washington, where Meet the Press is the most prestigious show in town, a radio and television host who doesn't care about the "get" is an unusual creature. But Hartmann insists that radio is driven by the host's personality, and his listeners tune in primarily because he has built a relationship with them and they want his perspective on the issues of the day. He acknowledges that he's still learning how to produce effective television, quoting the writer's adage that the first million words you write are just practice (Hartmann has written more than 20 books, on topics from attention-deficit disorder to the Kennedy assassination to global warming to corporate "personhood"). One thing he has brought with him from his radio show—and that distinguishes him from many other partisan hosts on both sides—is his eagerness to bring on people who disagree with him for spirited yet respectful debates.
Hartmann explains that when he was young, his father was an activist with the local Republican Party in Lansing, Michigan. "I went door to door with him in 1964—I was 13 years old—for Barry Goldwater." Hartman watched William F. Buckley on television with his father every week, and he thought Buckley's Firing Line "was the smartest show I had ever seen. It totally blew me away." His admiration for Buckley remains to this day, but by the time he was a teenager, "I had come to agree more with my grandfather, who was an old-fashioned 1930s socialist," and arguments in his house grew more intense. "The thing that I learned over the years was how to have those debates with my father and not get thrown out of the house, not have any blood on the floor." That experience carries over to his shows. "My goal in my conversations with conservatives is not to create a spectacle, and not to win the argument, not to prove that I'm the smartest guy in the room or that I'm the tough warrior and I can smack down people." The result is a rarity—discussions between people who disagree strongly but manage to avoid anger and shrillness. This may be why Hartmann has more good things to say about the Tea Party movement (its grassroots elements, at least) than most liberals. In fact, he sees the potential for a genuine alliance between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. The activist flavor of his show comes from both the guests and the host; he ends his program by telling viewers, "Don't forget, democracy begins with you. Get out there, get active. Tag, you're it."
Since the demise of Air America in 2010 (Hartmann was the network's headliner in its dying days, replacing Al Franken when the latter began his Senate run), the liberal establishment has turned its attention away from talk radio. Someone like Hartmann, who spent the last decade fielding calls from citizens all over the country, brings an outsider sensibility that fits uneasily in Washington. He may reach more people every day than some of his peers like Rachel Maddow, but it's going to take a lot of work for Hartmann to crack that top tier of media stardom. You can't do it without television, and you probably can't do it unless your show is carried on one of the major cable networks. At this point, most of the powerful Democrats in Washington probably have no idea that the country's top progressive radio host is broadcasting just blocks from Capitol Hill. Hartmann insists that he loves the control he gets from owning his own programs, being able to talk about whatever he wants and to ignore the insider Washington culture that is often so disconnected from people's lives. But he won't deny that he's ambitious. "If MSNBC came calling," he says, "I wouldn't say no."