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So What Do You Do, MSNBC Host Rachel Maddow?

The MSNBC and Air America radio host draws ratings success and responds to criticism that she's too "cutesy" and "sarcastic"

By Steve Krakauer - May 6, 2009
Just before our interview with MSNBC's 9 p.m. host Rachel Maddow, she asked us, "So are these your questions or the Twitter questions?" Yes, earlier that day we asked for Twitter contributions (one is included below), and Maddow was well aware of what transpired. Maybe that's because the 36-year-old host is, as she puts it, a "native" of the Web. Or maybe it's the hours of preparation for her show, "read[ing] Webpages all day long."

Maddow took over the 9 p.m. slot on MSNBC in September 2008, a move that signaled a primetime shift to the left for the network. But it also signaled something else -- some of the network's best ratings ever. Although the ratings have slipped a bit since the debut, the host's appeal has not. We talked to Maddow after she got off the air Monday night about President Obama's first 100 days in office, what kind of job she'd leave broadcasting for, the future of radio and more.

Name: Rachel Maddow
Position: Host, MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show
Resume: Host of WRNX's The Dave in the Morning Show; host of WRSI's Big Breakfast; Air America host and contributor; contributor and analyst for MSNBC and CNN; MSNBC host.
Birthdate: April 1, 1973
Hometown: Castro Valley, CA
Education: Castro Valley High School, Stanford University (public policy), Rhodes Scholar, Lincoln College, Oxford and doctorate in political science from the University of Oxford
Marital status: Partner, Susan Mikula, been together 10 years.
First section of the Sunday Times: Cars
Favorite TV shows: "N/A, or any Red Sox game at a bar."
Last book read: The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert
Guilty pleasure: "Oh, I have so many. I'm a very guilt-ridden person!... Fishing, drinking, which I do as a hobby. Home bartending is another way to put that. I take guilty pleasure in my interest in cars. And country music."

We've just finished the coverage of President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office. Since grades seem to be all the rage, how would you grade the administration so far?
I think that rather than give them a qualitative thumbs up or thumbs down, you can sort of assess them on policy and tactics, and on luck. I would say on policy, they've been sort of exactly as advertised. There's been almost no policy surprises, which is tactically quite remarkable, to have had that steady a hand over this expansive a time where all those different things have been in play. In terms of luck, I think they've had an average number of gaffes. Sometimes gaffes are put on you and sometimes gaffes are totally of your own making. In terms of embarrassing stuff, they've been pretty good at not compounding the inevitably embarrassing things that happen when you're starting up a new administration. They haven't doubled down on idiocy at any moment, even though they've had their idiotic moments.

How do you think the media has done overall in the first 100 days of coverage?
I don't know very much about the media: I pay a lot of attention to the magazine and newspaper print media, and the blog world print media, but I don't pay that much attention to the broadcast media. I can't really tell you just because I don't know. Of course, aside from The Rachel Maddow Show, which -- how you can you fault them? In terms of the print media, it just doesn't feel that different to me than the Bush era in terms of looking for the style story, looking for the common wisdom story, looking for the trend story. It sort of feels like the same patterns over and over again. I don't think it feels all that different than covering Bush did in terms of what I'm seeing out there in the print media.

What do you think of the idea of using the 100-day metric as a way to look at how the president is doing?
I think one metric is as good as any. As long as you recognize that it's arbitrary, there's nothing in particular about three months plus a couple days that tells you about immediate efficacy more than picking some other day. I do think it's a bit made-up, but since we have used this same made-up benchmark for other administrations, it's an appropriate point of comparison. I don't have any real issue about it.

"The only editorial control you have as a guest is whether or not to say yes to the segment. I wanted to be the one deciding what the segments were about, rather than just responding to the producers' whims."

You were asked about the difference between hosting a show when Bush is in office and when Obama's in office. But what, if anything, has changed about the daily process of putting the show together?
Well, I haven't had the show for very long. For me, there's definitely a dividing line, pre-election and post-election. I got on the air September 8 [of 2008], so I had a little less than two months before the election. Those first two months were different because I was learning how to do this for the first time, but also because you knew what was going to be your top three stories of the day, every day, no matter what, which were three things going on on the campaign trail. Then the other stories you had room for on the show just had to be whatever you could shoehorn in around that. There isn't any obvious thing that's going to be in the news now. Even to the extent that we're all obsessed with the economic crisis, it's not always a given that that's going to be your A-block. Even though I tend to be obsessive about national security matters, it isn't always a given that those are going to make the show. It's a much more wide-open canvas that you start with every day.

One year ago around this time you were making frequent appearances on Race to the White House, which led Air America to simulcast that hour. Could you have imagined then being in the position you are now?
I don't tend to think about things in those terms. I'm not a real "project into the future" person. I definitely knew, once I started doing regular guesting gigs, where I wasn't just all over different networks, all shows all the time -- once I started doing regular guest appearances on the shows where I was sort of a repeat offender, I started to think about how much more satisfying it would be to be hosting rather than guesting. Just because of story selection, because of the editorial control of deciding what to talk about. The only editorial control you have as a guest is whether or not to say yes to the segment. I wanted to be the one deciding what the segments were about, rather than just responding to the producers' whims. So I won't say that I didn't want it, but I don't think I projected forward to imagine getting it or how I was gonna, until it was right upon me.

Now you have the TV show, but you also had The Rachel Maddow Show on Air America at the time and still sort of have that, in essentially a repackage of your TV show in the morning. What do you think the future holds for Air America and "progressive" radio in general?
The most interesting element of answering that question is what's going to happen to radio generally, and what's going to happen to talk radio generally. The satellite companies merging, with radio revenues not only down, but volatile and down and hard to predict, with the new ratings systems that they use for Arbitron ratings on radio right now which has completely changed all the benchmarks for what we think about ratings. There's so many moving parts right now, I definitely couldn't say what's going to be going on with radio in general in five years. In terms of Air America, I think that the staying power of Air America has been a constant surprise to its critics from the very beginning. People have been sort of crowing about the death and failure of Air America since we first went on the air more than five years ago, but it happens to have been more than five years ago. So, I have confidence in it. Broadly speaking, anybody interested in that part of the business should have a lot of confidence in the guy who is the owner of Air America and who has been during the last period of stability during the last year-plus, Charlie Kireker from Vermont who is a totally straightforward, decent, reasonable guy who's doing a really good job with the company. And he came in at a time when we couldn't have had a worse reputation, and I think he has done really great stuff.

"I recognize that for as many people as are moved by a story and get a story more than they otherwise would because I've told it with some humor in it, there are probably as many people who are turned off that I'm using humor to talk about Osama bin Laden."

One of the things from last month that you were one of the driving forces behind were the teabagging jokes in relation to the tax day protests. Do you think that the jokes marginalized the 300,000+ participants around the country at all?
I think it was a self-inflicted wound, really. 'Send 99 cents and we'll teabag the White House for you.' The teabag being nailed to the Senate for weeks and weeks in advance of the tax day events. The fact that somebody threw teabags onto the White House lawn, the Fox News promos talking about teabagging Obama, teabagging the White House. That is, for anybody with a satirical take on the news, to have endured that event without making the obvious joke, or at least pointing it out, would have been superhuman. It never in a million years would have occurred to me to say, "Teabag the White House." (Laughs) I didn't make that up! The organizers did, and the people who promoted them did, so they blundered into what ended up being the most memorable thing about them.

Going along those lines, you've gotten some criticism from people who generally say they're fans of the show, Alec Baldwin, David Frum, who have described your show as being "cutesy" or "sarcastic." Do you think there's validity to any of that criticism?
I wouldn't describe David Frum as a fan of the show. (Laughs) He certainly criticized the show in those terms, but not from the perspective of a fan.

Okay, Alec Baldwin was the fan, I guess.
Yeah. I think about that all the time. I've always been a person who has felt that humor and sarcasm and mimicry and satire are as effective to tell a good story and communicate a good point as are expository writing and anger and other forms of emotion. I think that humor and sarcasm and satire are one of the ways that you make people remember storylines and story arcs. If you can make the points of a long political story or a long news story feel like a punch line to somebody, I think our brains -- particularly if you're watching at 9 o'clock Eastern, 10 o'clock Eastern -- our brains are wired in a way that we tend to remember and absorb punch lines almost better than we do to remember thesis statements. So I try to do both, and I try to mix them up. And I always try to tell the stories that we've decided to tell that day in the most effective way. We don't always use humor, but we often do, often because I think that's the most effective way to get the point across. I recognize there's a cost to that. I recognize that for as many people as are moved by a story and get a story more than they otherwise would because I've told it with some humor in it, there are probably as many people who are turned off that I'm using humor to talk about Osama bin Laden or something. And I recognize that cost. And you're constantly aware of those tradeoffs and trying to play them to your best advantage with every story.

The Rachel Maddow Show has been getting great ratings for MSNBC at 9pm if you look to the prior year, but at the same time the ratings have dropped off for the show each month. Has there ever been any discussion about changes to the show to counter what's happening in the ratings?
No, we haven't talked about changing the show to try to chase ratings. It's just not the terms in which we talk about things. I mean, we pay attention to the ratings, certainly. Every day when they come out at 4 o'clock, everybody checks their email at the same time to see what they are. We're interested in them, but we don't plan the show around them, either on a micro level on a day-to-day basis, or the macro level in terms of the overall direction of the show; we haven't been doing that.

You're very active on Twitter [@maddow], with 400,000 followers, you have a big group of fans on Facebook, you have, which I was going through last night, and is just this huge resource of material.
Yeah, totally fan-maintained. I'm so unbelievably flattered and moved by, and that's been up for a very long time. And the folks who put that together, it's like -- I don't know what I did to deserve this, but thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm the least organized person in the world. I have no archive of anything I've ever written, any interviews with me, TV appearances, nothing. The only archive that exists of my work in broadcasting exists because of and the other people who have created Maddow channels on YouTube and stuff, it's amazing to me.

What do you think about the way the Web has driven support for your TV program and your radio program before?
It's a really good question and one that I don't really have a great answer for, but my assumption about it is: I'm sort of a creature of the online world. I wrote my honors thesis in college in 1993, and even in 1993, I did everything online, which is sort of amazing because nothing was online at that point. I essentially did my thesis research all on a dial-up modem and LexisNexis, which was the thing that was available to me at the time. Since then I've just been a completely online person. I read Web pages all day long. I don't read print publications in print, and I don't watch television . Even though I haven't purposely tried to cultivate an online sort of pro-Rachel community, I think that there may be something about the way that I communicate and the way that I think about things that is sort of recognizable to other people who are very comfortable in the online world.

I find it interesting to see the changing ways that TV attributes Web sites now. It's growing. There are different shows now that will give credit to Web sites when credit is due, and that's something I've seen on your show.
I try to. I try to credit not only Web sites, but I really am a believer in the cult of the reporter. I believe if you are doing good reporting, whether you're doing it at The New York Times or you're doing it at McClatchy or you're doing it at FireDogLake or you're doing it at RedState, if you are the person who reported the information, who thereby brought that fact to the rest of the world by your well-sourced reporting, not only do I want to cite you so I'm covering myself in case your reporting turns out to be wrong, I want to cite you because I want to implicitly praise you for doing good useful reporting. I've always said that we need reporting like a mammal needs blood. For me, being able to name resources, where they come from, whether it's the Web site title or the reporter's name or in some cases both, to me it's an honor to be able to do it because it's my way of giving a shout–out and trying to draw attention to the people who are doing good work.

Compared to the rest of the cable news landscape and the hosts that occupy it, you're young, newer to the TV world, and have been complimented by people like Jon Stewart for being one of the normal TV news hosts. What do you think about the television news business in general? What has surprised you since you've been in it?
I still don't know very much about it, I'm sort of a hermetic worker, in the sense that when I get to my office before the show every day, I'm at my desk reading and writing all day. I'm not out in the hall schmoozing, I don't really go to meetings with anyone outside of my show's staff, I try not to do any events that I'm not forced or contractually obligated to do. And I hope it's not seen as snobbery -- I don't know if it is, but the reason I don't do stuff is because I'm working all the time. I find this job to be really, really, really hard. And I'm also a really slow worker. It takes me a good solid 10 hours to prep an hour of TV, and that's with not taking a lunch break and not making any phone calls and not talking to anybody about anything other than the show that day, and not reading my emails. (Laughs) It's that hard, it takes me that long. I just sort of have my head down all the time. In terms of my own show experience, the thing that has been surprising is just the number of people involved in the production of the show every day.

Okay, we've got the Twitter question here. From natthedem.
Oh, I recognize natthedem's handle.

Really? Well natthedem wants to know, "Would there be any circumstance you could see yourself following the lead of someone like Jay Carney and leaving the media to pursue a career in public service?"
Let me think about the things I can imagine myself doing. I cannot imagine myself running for office, although that is not the question. It is hard for me to imagine wanting to work for a candidate or a public servant, particularly an elected official, just because I don't have that interest in participating in electoral politics either as a staffer or a campaign volunteer or a candidate. In terms of leaving the media to do some form of public service, I can imagine going back to what I was doing before I was in broadcasting, which is being an activist. I was an activist for a long time; I stopped being an activist and started being a broadcaster, and I can imagine stopping being a broadcaster and starting being an activist again. I think about that work. I still am in touch with a lot of people from my activist days who are still doing the same thing that I was doing with them I guess five years ago, but in terms of getting involved in the kind of politics that I talk about, with people running for office, that is something that is beyond unlikely.

Last question: I know you're working 10 hours, but working in 30 Rock you must have had some celebrity encounters. Any memorable "only in 30 Rock" moments you've had?
It's bad because I don't recognize anybody. (Laughs) It's really bad. You know, a long time before Jimmy Fallon's show started, I was in the elevator with him, and he was like "Hey, hi," and I was like "Hi! Hello, hi…okay, this is my floor, bye." We both sort of recognized each other but it was sort of like "Hi! Hi! Hi!" and that was it. You know I don't tend to… I've got the iPod on, I'm usually looking at my BlackBerry, I'm staring at my shoes. I'm just not all that aware of what's going on around me at any one moment.

Steve Krakauer is associate editor of TVNewser and WebNewser.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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