An Air American Girl

It's 5:18 a.m. in New York City on Wednesday, May 11. In a sound studio on the 41st floor of the high-rise at 3 Park Avenue, Rachel Maddow is working her way into the second segment of her early morning show on Air America Radio. She stands while she talks, leaning against the desk and holding a page that she's reading from in one hand and a pen in the other hand. "Now, every day here at The Rachel Maddow Show," she says,

"We poke a sharp stick at the soft, white underbelly of the right-wing scheme machine, giving you a little peek at the right-wing playbook for privatizing, polarizing and paving the United States of America. Today's underbelly story is kind of a big-picture look at the overall right-wing approach to the social safety net. Right? The idea that the government can help where free market forces fail. Where there's some social contract to turn to if you're sick, or if you are unlucky or if you are fortunate enough to live beyond your working years and actually retire."
Maddow relates the news that a federal judge recently ruled that United Airlines could default on its employee pension plan, throwing it into the lap of the federal government. With 134,000 employees affected, the United Airlines pension default is the largest in the past 30 years, perhaps ever. With US Air already having defaulted on its employee pensions, Maddow sees the beginning of a trend that doesn't bode well for American workers, at least in the airline industry. Still looking down at her script, she points a finger at Chris, the sound engineer, who plays a sound clip that Maddow had asked him to queue up during the break. In the clip, a representative of the flight attendants' union signals her displeasure at the ruling and says her union will continue to fight it in court.

Then, Maddow turns to her analysis:
"It's one thing to think about how the employees of United and US Air are being screwed by the companies that made these promises to them, but it's another thing to think about the right-wing playbook here -- alright? -- the way that this thing fits into the overall right-wing plans for the social safety net."
She brings up the declining numbers of companies that give health benefits to their employees, and how that leaves government as the backup. The Republicans want to take away that backup, Maddow says. Not just Social Security, but Medicare and Medicaid, too.
"So if the companies aren't doing it any more and the government isn't doing it any more -- at least if the Republicans get their way -- then who's taking care of your health insurance and your health care needs and your retirement? Well, you are, alone. On your own. The Republicans want an individualistic, every man for himself, eat the poor, capitalist, for-profit system, because that's best for business, that's best for people with money. They want to shift the risk -- right, because risk is what the social safety net is really all about -- they want to shift the risk from the government to you."
She's set it up. First she laid out the airline pension defaults, then she moved to the Republicans aims on Capital Hill. Now, she turns to the counter strategy. She holds up a finger, as if making a point in an argument with somebody standing in front of her, only there's no one there.
"Now, the Democrats, I think, need to start articulating this basic fact, start talking about their different approach to this issue, because I think people accept that the role of government generally -- it's not controversial to say -- is to take on some of the risk where some of the individuals can't manage it, right? To take on some of the risk where you are disadvantaged because of your age, because of ill health, because of being unlucky."
Maddow has dropped her script now and she's going on feeling. Chris, the sound man, brings in background music, a driving dancehall beat. The music begins to rise, signaling that the end of the segment is approaching.

"There are ways in which we can't live as beasts in an asocial environment, right?" Maddow says. "There's a way in which we come together for the collective good to support one another. When we're down on our luck or when we get old." According to Maddow, the Republicans are going about this the wrong way, creating a giant crisis as "an excuse to shred these programs that create the social safety net." The right way, Maddow says, is to try to find a way to get at the root of the problem of rising medical costs and to try to make them more affordable. "How's that for a Democratic program? Are we still looking for one? It's 27 after."

Right on time. Chris cuts to the commercial break.

The Rachel Maddow Show is billed as Air America Radio's front page. Launched on April 14, it is one of the newest programs on the liberal talk network, a network that many predicted wouldn't last beyond the 2004 election. The show stars Rachel Maddow, who joined the year-old network as part of the ensemble cast of Unfiltered with comedienne Lizz Winstead and rapper Chuck D. When Air America Radio reshuffled its programming in April, bringing on notorious daytime television host (and former mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio) Jerry Springer's radio program, Unfiltered got the axe. Winstead got the boot, Chuck D. took a weekend music show, but Maddow was moved into the station's leadoff spot, captaining her own hour-long program of rapid-fire news and analysis. Air America Radio has garnered a lot of buzz for its big-name celebrity hosts like Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo, which has also earned the radio network its share of criticism for its big splash strategy. If Air America was designed to be a quick knockout punch that would deflate the power of Rush Limbaugh or help defeat George W. Bush at the ballot box, it's a double failure. But if there is a long-term future for left-leaning talk radio in America, Air America will have to blend its big-name talent with a system for bringing up new talent from the grassroots. A sign that this may be happening is Rachel Maddow, who vaulted to Air America Radio from her position as morning show host for WRSI in Northampton.

On his radio show in March, Rush Limbaugh asked, "Has anyone heard of Rachel Maddow?" It's a sound clip that Maddow now uses for one of her "bumpers" introducing a segment. That people are beginning to perk their ears up at Maddow's name is a sign that the network is moving past its star-fueled first stage and into orbit as a legitimate news and opinion beacon in the broadcast stratosphere.

During the commercial break in the 41st floor studio, producer Vanessa Peel comes through the door, a breaking news report in her hand. She stops to ask whether Chris the sound engineer is, in fact, drinking a 7-11 Slurpee at this hour. Then she turns to Maddow, to deliver the report.

"I feel stupid today," Maddow says.

"You don't sound stupid," Peel answers.

"Really? That's good to hear," Maddow says. "I thought you wrapped up that Underbelly story really well," Peel says.

In order to transition into her new duties, Maddow has had to become what she calls "a news vampire." Her day begins at midnight, when a car arrives at her Manhattan apartment to take her to the studio. There, she gathers with her three-woman team. Although Maddow writes her own material and captains the ship, producer Vanessa Peel is her right-hand. The team is rounded out by a researcher/news writer. Maddow's riff on United's pension default and the social safety is the product of work that began hours earlier in the small office downstairs from the studio. The room used to be the office for the Unfiltered program, as evidenced by a sign on the wall that reads: "Unfiltered commandment: Thou shalt not steal ... except from Franken." On the morning of Wednesday, May 11, after their initial research, Maddow and her two compatriots gathered in the office for their 2 a.m. meeting. Each of the three of them are responsible for different sources among the primary ones covered by the program. Among them: New York Times, Guardian (UK), CNN, Salon, AlterNet, Washington Post, Common Dreams, Daily Kos and Drudge Report.

Maddow stood at the marker board while her two compatriots sat at their computers, stacks of news printouts in hand. On the board were written column headers for each of the program's five regular features: "headlines," "top stories," "underbelly," "front page" and "pet stories."

First, the three take turns pitching the stories they've found that they'd like to consider for the show. Maddow went first. She wrote them on the marker board as she went through them, munching on a carrot. She wore jeans slung low on her hips, making her look boyish, and a pair of colorful Adidas sneakers. As she went through, Peel provided color commentary, as when Maddow read a headline about an investigator for a district attorney in California who shot and killed five family members before turning the gun on himself. Said Peel, in mock news reader voice: "Truman Capote will be investigating!"

Maddow's job, as she sees it, is to pore through the news of the day and give her take on it, to connect the dots between stories and look at the running trends.

"For example," she told the Advocate after the show that morning. "Talking about Social Security privatization and the three trillion dollars of cuts proposed in Social Security along with the United Airlines pension default and putting those together, say, in the real world, with real people who have real pocketbook issues and real worries about their retirement -- this is all part of the same struggle, to maintain some sort of social welfare safety net in this country. And those stories -- United Airlines and Bush privatizing Social Security -- aren't even usually on the same page of the paper or not even covered in the same paper. And so by putting those together, I'm not doing any original reporting, but I'm making a case for a larger analysis of what these things mean to regular people."

The concept for her current show grew out of her work on Unfiltered and the Big Breakfast, her show on WRSI in Northampton, Mass. She said it came directly out of "a segment in Unfiltered called 'burying the lead.'" In that segment, Maddow would pick out a news story that was hidden on the interior pages of a newspaper and bring it out front. "We realized that 'burying the lead' was kind of a big part of the mission of this overall show," she said.

In the "Underbelly" segment of the show, Maddow zooms in on a story that illustrates "the bad guys" and tactics -- both analyzing the tactics of the other side and prescribing tactics to counter them. "It is more of an explainer," she said. "It's more of a, you know, politics behind the headlines kind of discussion, so I wanted to brand that in a specific way and kind of block it off from the rest of the news as, you know, a peek at their playbook." At about 3 a.m., Maddow grabbed the stories and went into the conference room across the hall and laid the news printouts out on the table. She sat at the table with a highlighter, going through stories. Because the show is only an hour long and has no callers or guests, Maddow has no breathing room, so she has turned to scripting out chunks of the show ahead of time, to make sure she doesn't get lost. One of the things that Maddow brings to Air America is a keen political mind. Although she learned the radio business on the job over the past four years, starting in Northampton, she has a background in social justice activism -- primarily work on the subjects of AIDS and prisons -- and she was a Rhodes Scholar at Stanford University. She brings that combination of passion and rigor to the job.

At about 4 a.m., there came noise from the next room as the crew from Morning Sedition, the show on after Maddow's, began to gather. While Maddow and her crew are all women and fairly studious, the Morning Sedition crew are all men and more boisterous. Morning Sedition, anchored by comedian Marc Maron, is a more impromptu affair, blending together set pieces and guests and relying heavily on the rapport of Maron and his co-host Mark Riley, a veteran of WLIB (which, previous to becoming Air America Radio's flagship station, was an afro-Carribean station). As the Morning Sedition team begins bantering next door, the door to The Rachel Maddow Show office gets closed.

Peel handles the sound for the show. After scripting a couple of segments, Maddow sat down with Peel to go over the sound clips Peel had harvested. Maddow sat on a speaker next to the large window overlooking 34th Street and the Empire State Building looming in the darkness. She put on headphones, listened to the clips and selected three or four to run for the show. Afterwards, Peel went on to put together an opening montage, with bits from the clips played over a beat.

At about 4:30 a.m., Kent Jones came into the room. Jones, a former writer for Comedy Central's Daily Show, acts as the Ed McMahon of the Rachel Maddow Show, coming on in the final segment to read through some of the sillier news items of the day in his mock TV announcer voice. By the time 5 a.m. rolled around, Maddow was not sure she was ready, having scripted out the first half of the show, but still feeling uncertain about the rest. She gathered up her scripts and some of the remaining news stories, marked up with yellow high-lighter and written on in pen. A pile of discarded stories were strewn on the floor of the conference room. Stories in hand, she dashed out the office and up the stairs to the studio on the 41st floor. The show officially began at 5:07 a.m. and Maddow was furiously scribbling away on her news reports right next to the microphone up to the time she went on the air.

After the show finished at 6 a.m., Maddow was not done. She recorded newscasts to run throughout the day and then made an appearance on Morning Sedition to rebut a caller who had complained about an earlier appearance Maddow had made on that show. The caller complained that Maddow was "always pushing the gay agenda" which the Morning Sedition crew played for high comedy. Maddow's take was that she doesn't hide the fact that she's a Lesbian on the air, but she also doesn't talk about her personal life any more than the next person, and it's really the fact that she is a Lesbian that bothers the caller.

Maddow has also become a regular guest on TV talk shows, something she didn't expect, but which she has come to enjoy. On that particular Wednesday, she would appear with Tucker Carlson on CNN. Maddow said later: "The first time I ever went on CNN, which was like the second time I was ever on TV, it was me and G. Gordon Liddy and I'm thinking, 'Hey! You were in prison when I was born.'" Maddow said while she doesn't watch television at home and initially hated the idea of appearing on TV, she has come to enjoy the practice it gives her on interacting with other commentators and sharpening her delivery. "There are not very many liberals who are appearing as talking heads," Maddow said. "And so what's kind of nice is that because there is a shortage of liberal talking head commentators, and the reasons for that are myriad, but whatever, that's the case, I end up being put up opposite kind of A-list conservative commentators."

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