Left and centered: Air America radio’s Rachel Maddow is out, brilliant, and ready to defend the other L word: liberal
Talk radio, at least the right-wing variety, isn’t exactly known for brains. But the AM dial got a shot of ginkgo biloba in April with the debut of out lesbian anchor Rachel Maddow, one of the stars of Air America Radio, the fledgling liberal talk network. A Rhodes scholar who used her time at Oxford to earn a Ph.D. in politics, Maddow is anything but the shy, retiring academic type. At age 31 she’s a veteran AIDS and prisoners’ rights activist, and she’s storming the radio dial with the same force she used in scaling the ivory tower.
“[For] an out, queer lefty there aren’t many opportunities to jump into talk radio, because it is so right-wing, coast to coast,” Maddow tells The Advocate during a week when Air America’s name star, Al Franken, beat uberconservative Rush Limbaugh’s ratings in the much-courted 25-to-54-year-old demographic in New York City.
“I feel like I’ve won the job lottery,” Maddow enthuses. “This is one of those jobs that everybody fantasizes about but that you don’t imagine you’ll ever actually get.”
Maddow’s not exaggerating when she refers to a job lottery. She got her start as an on-air personality through a contest at Massachusetts station WRNX. “I was crashing in Massachusetts with friends, trying to finish my dissertation, and they were big fans of a local morning show whose sidekick left,” she recalls. “There was an open audition, and they convinced me to go on a lark. [The station] hired me on the spot.”
From the beginning she made it clear to station managers that she wasn’t going to muffle her identity as an out lesbian and a political radical. “I didn’t give them much choice,” she says. “They had a choice whether or not to hire me, but I’m one of those people who’s just incapable of being in the closet.”
Even in the lesbian-friendly realms of western Massachusetts, Maddow attracted her share of conservative criticism. She credits open-minded station managers at WRNX and WRSI for making her radio career possible. “All credit to the straight guys who hired me,” she says. “I was lucky to get support from progressive straight guys running these companies who were willing to take a chance.”
Programmers at Air America Radio were quick to recognize Maddow’s talent. Hiring her away from the Northampton, Mass., station WRSI, where Maddow had her own morning show, they matched her up with Chuck D, legend of rap group Public Enemy, and Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead. The result is Unfiltered, a three-way gabfest airing weekdays 9 A.M.-noon.
Despite their diverse backgrounds, the three quickly developed a unique chemistry. “[Rachel] steers the bus,” Chuck D says. “Rachel is one of the best professional radio broadcasters I’ve worked with. You need somebody who’s passionate and can represent that voice that’s not heard, bat also you need a person that’s great in radio.”
Winstead, who has helped craft the current events-based comedy of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, says Maddow’s broad knowledge helps keep Unfiltered on track. “She’s somebody who knows everything about everything,” Winstead says. “If I go off on some emotional, crazed tangent, she always brings it back to the facts. She’s the one who brings the level of dialogue [up].”
Lehoczky also writes for the Chicago Tribune.
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