Column | Talking with Thom | Fair Game | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Talking with Thom 

Sanders outpolls Obama for president among Vermont voters. Howard Dean gets crushed.

Bernie Sanders

Published August 24, 2011 at 11:56 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.

Has America’s left wing found its Rush Limbaugh?

Thom Hartmann now hosts one of the most successful such programs — of any political stripe — in the United States. His internationally syndicated, progressive-oriented talk show originated in Vermont.

For the fourth consecutive year, “The Thom Hartmann Show” is on the “Heavy Hundred” list in TALKERS, a talk-radio industry publication. This year, though, it ranked eighth, which makes Hartmann’s the most influential progressive voice on the radio — ahead of such personalities as Stephanie Miller, Neal Boortz and Ed Schultz, who is now host of an MSNBC show.

No surprise, since Hartmann reaches close to three million listeners each week on radio alone. A TV version of his radio show reaches another 55 million homes worldwide. Not bad for a show that started at the Hartmanns’ dining room table in Montpelier.

“We launched the show because we thought it was possible,” Hartmann told “Fair Game” recently, crediting his wife, Louise Hartmann, for the program’s success. The couple co-owns the show, which is a rarity in talk radio these days. Big-time talkers such as Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are hired guns for syndicated radio networks such as Premiere and Clear Channel. They don’t have to sell ads, or worry about the day-to-day finances; their sole job is to attract listeners.

“We boot-strapped the show from the start,” said Hartmann, adding that he and his wife spent $20,000 to buy satellite time in their first year, then tried to sell enough ads to cover their investment. “We lost money the first year,” Hartmann concedes, “and then, slowly, we started to make money, and, as we picked up more stations, we’ve been able to make a go of it.”

“The Thom Hartmann Show” airs Fridays from noon to 3 p.m. on WDEV-FM.

Hartmann’s growth on television is the result of a recent deal with Free Speech TV. He is now the channel’s number-one rated program — beating out the stalwart “Democracy Now,” a left-leaning show hosted by Amy Goodman. Hartmann’s show is also broadcast on satellite networks such as Dish and DirecTV.

Hartmann is a prolific author, too, with more than 30 books to his credit, on subjects ranging from attention-deficit disorder to the history of corporate “personhood.”

Hartmann is “a well-read and smart guy, and his interests go well beyond the usual BS of politics,” said Ellen Ratner of Talk Radio News, a frequent guest on Vermont’s “Mark Johnson Show” on WDEV-FM. “When Air America started, a lot of my lefty friends … said, ‘It’s unlistenable because it’s the same harangue that we get from the Right — we want NPR with an edge; with a little bit of pizzazz,” Ratner said. “That’s what Thom offers — a thoughtful, nonprofit program with a for-profit edge.”

Ratner, whose office is adjacent to Hartmann’s in Washington, D.C., summed it up: “I think what makes Thom different from anyone else is that he is brilliant.”

One of the most popular features on Hartmann’s show is an hourlong segment called “Brunch with Bernie.”

Can you guess the guest? That’s right, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

The two met when Hartmann’s show was just beginning to gain national notoriety and Sanders was starring on his own weekly radio program — “The Bernie Sanders Show” — on WDEV-FM.

WDEV station owner Ken Squier suggested that Sanders and Hartmann get in touch and talk about their common interest in radio. And so they did. Hartmann had the senator on as a guest, and they’ve been doing it every week since. “It fit my definition of ‘local,’ because it was Bernie,” says Squier, a Republican. “But the thing took off.”

Sanders had a different goal. “I’ve always been interested in media and have always been concerned that corporate media doesn’t really educate people in this country,” said Sanders. “Thom does that. I might add, however, that Thom is not only a very effective radio person, in the sense that he’s very smart, articulate and funny — he and his wife Louise are very savvy businesspeople.”

“The Thom Hartmann Show” now airs in every major U.S. market, either through commercial or noncommercial means. A relationship with nonprofit Pacifica Radio and its affiliates, for example, necessitates a commercial-free version of the program.

Hartmann introduces Vermont’s junior senator each week as “America’s Senator” — a nickname that has caught on among his lefty listeners. “Bernie’s is the only segment of the week in which we have calls lined up even before the guest has a chance to speak,” said Hartmann. “I think people are genuinely impressed that Bernie will go on the air in what is essentially a town-hall format — unscripted — and talk for an hour and answer their questions. Most politicians are afraid of their own shadow, so it takes some brass cojones for a sitting U.S. senator to come on the air and not even know what topics are going to come up.”

The only callers Hartmann ever rejects are intoxicated or obscenely belligerent ones. “Just belligerent is OK,” he clarified.

Hartmann largely steers clear of the on-air rants favored by big-time conservative talkers such as Limbaugh, Beck and Sean Hannity. When he does get impassioned, he tends to be thought provoking and inquisitive rather than dogmatic. He also does something that’s rare on talk radio: He seeks out guests, and callers, who disagree with him. He regularly invites people with opposing views to call in.

“There’s an old axiom: People slow down for fistfights and car wrecks. People love it when I have a conservative on and debate them; it’s that simple,” said Hartmann. “On the one hand, it makes good performance radio; on the other hand, one of the things that we’ve lost in America is the idea of an intelligent discourse with the other side, where listeners from each side can learn something.”

Hartmann may be onto something.

Sanders Beats Obama!

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders recently made national news on “The Thom Hartmann Show” when he suggested it “might be a good idea” for someone on the left to challenge President Barack Obama in a Democratic primary. The goal? To push the president leftward on policy.

Though an immediate “Draft Bernie” campaign emerged, Sanders said he’s not interested in being a presidential candidate. That’s for some other schmuck.

What would happen if Sanders challenged Obama? Among “very liberal” voters, in his home state of Vermont, he’d win!

According to a poll released earlier this month by Public Policy Polling, Sanders would defeat Obama, 50-38, among voters who describe themselves as “very liberal.” Sanders drops to a losing position among “somewhat liberal” voters, and moderates would elect Obama, 57-25.

Overall, Obama would crush Sanders 52-33 in a Democratic primary in Vermont.

What about former Gov. Howard Dean? He’s another progressive Democrat whose name has been suggested as a possible Obama challenger. But in the PPP poll, Dean fared worse than Sanders. In a Democratic primary in Vermont, Obama would defeat Dean, 61-24.

I guess Vermonters are still feeling the hope and don’t want a change.

Got the Blues

The outrage over University of Vermont president Dan Fogel’s golden parachute recalled another compensation scandal: In 2009, “Fair Game” broke the news that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont had awarded $7.25 million to its outgoing CEO, William Milnes, Jr.

Outrage over that payout led to an investigation by Vermont’s Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration. Like Fogel, Milnes declined to return any of the money. Then-commissioner Paulette Thabault ordered the insurance giant to restore some of the money — $3 million —to subscribers in the form of lower premium payments.

According to BCBSVT, that averages out to $1.88 per member per month, which adds up to about $22 a year.

By year’s end, BCBSVT estimates it will have returned roughly $2.2 million in the form of lower premiums. The remaining $800,000 will be doled out next year.

Media Notes

The Burlington Free Press announced last week it was discontinuing Business Monday. Instead, the biz-oriented section would be moved to Thursdays and renamed “innovate” — lower case intentional.

But why?

“For the first time in memory, the Monday edition of the Burlington Free Press is without a Business Monday section,” Freeps publisher Jim Fogler told readers in front-page announcement on August 15. “That section has been a Free Press staple, one valued by readers for its coverage of local companies. I’m pleased to announce today that in the spirit of reinvention and delivering excellent products, the Free Press is recreating its approach to business coverage.”

Let me get this straight: A “valued” item in the paper gets moved to a new day and renamed because … everyone liked it so much?

Perhaps the long-circulating rumor is true: that the Gannett-owned Freeps intends to ditch Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday home deliveries to push more people to newsstands and the website. At the Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press, for example, home delivery is limited to Thursday and Friday only.

No word from Fogler on whether that’s the long-term plan.

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About The Author

Shay Totten

Shay Totten

Shay Totten wrote "Fair Game," a weekly political column, from April 2008-December 2011.


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