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Thom Hartmann's Unusual Approach to Progressive Media Nets Big Audience Without Big Names

Can Hartmann reach the top echelon of political media while retaining a sensibility that finds the work of organizers more compelling than senators and congressmen?

 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 magazine Talkers 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.

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