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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?

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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."

Paul Waldman is a contributing editor for the American Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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