How to Make Sure the Maddow Show Survives

Rachel Maddow first came on my radar in the spring of 2004, when she, along with Lizz Winstead and Chuck D of Public Enemy hosted an early morning radio show called Unfiltered on the newly minted Air America, an attempt to counter rightwing talk radio with liberal programming.


Radio has this ability to make the listener feel like they share a secret with the hosts and the few, hard-to-know listeners out there. I hoped people tuned in to listen to the hosts trade jokes and talk about politics and music, and mostly I wanted other people to learn about this Maddow character, who brought to every episode a dynamic mix of sparkling good humour, intelligent analysis and a broad view of what issues should matter.

Unfiltered didn't make the first round of reshuffling at Air America, but Maddow hung in, hosting her own eponymous radio show and eventually moving to television, first as a guest pundit and now as a host of her own night time political talkshow on MSNBC.

Before it happened, most American liberals would have never imagined that Maddow could have her own program on any cable network, much less the same network that had, just a few years before, tried to pull in a rightwing audience by giving hard right nut Michael Savage his own show (before pulling it after he told a gay caller to die from Aids).

It's not just that Maddow is a liberal. After all, MSNBC had already given a spot to liberal commentator Keith Olbermann and his frequent, angry rants. It was mostly hard to imagine a cable news network rewarding a pundit for being sober-minded and nuanced in her analysis, as well as suspicion that homophobia would prevent it from promoting a lesbian who favours a more masculine way of dressing.

But 2008 was a year for re-arranging American expectations about who gets to have a voice in public. The Democratic candidate was not only black, but also overtly professorial, and this didn't diminish his popularity with the public. Hillary Clinton and, yes, even Sarah Palin normalized the idea of more female authority in politics. In a very short period of time, the unthinkable became the reality, and Maddow had her very own MSNBC program.

Maddow's audience is still small, but she inspires devotion in her fans, because she doesn't fit the tedious mold of most political talkshow hosts. Maddow openly identifies with the wild world of the liberal blogosphere, and even went so far as to wear pajamas on her show to cheekily demonstrate solidarity with bloggers after Palin denounced the netroots.

Like bloggers, Maddow knows that the key to building rapport with your audience isn't making yourself into an aloof portrayal of authority, but to show your human side and sense of humor. To this end, Maddow lets her idiosyncrasies become known, such as her obsession with classic cocktails.

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