974,000: Maddow's average viewership for the first quarter of 2014, nearly twice the audience for her CNN competition Piers Morgan

Why she matters: Never less than cheerful in her ruthless pursuit of "gonzo political corruption," Maddow stands out as a beacon of rationality amid the high-volume melodramatics of cable news. During these nonelection years, the 41-year-old star of liberal punditry has set about sniffing out abuses of power on the state level. The strategy has paid off richly, most notably with her coverage of the Chris Christie bridge scandal -- a story upon which Maddow was among the first to pounce with a Dec. 9 segment titled "When Politics Is a Rejected Plotline From The Sopranos." The ensuing coverage lifted MSNBC to its first victory over Fox News in the key demo in more than a year, and Maddow makes no apologies for having "covered it intensely" since then. Despite a bumpy year of apologies and mea culpas for her network, Maddow says she could not be more proud of her co-workers at MSNBC, where "we know who we are and are comfortable in our own skin."

Thoughts on former colleague Alec Baldwin: Baldwin called Maddow a "phony" in New York magazine and suggested she played a role in his firing. Responds Maddow with signature bemusement: "The people who run the network don't ask for my advice, and I don't offer it. I've never had any interaction with [Baldwin]. I've certainly had nothing to do with his show coming or going -- and if he thinks that, it's not based in truth."

Proudest achievement this year: "That I'm still in this job."

Power lunches? Don't count on it: "My social life occurs in the 10s: I can have a breakfast meeting at 10:30 a.m. before I go to work, and I can have dinner with you at 10:30 p.m.," says the host, who spends every spare moment at the western Massachusetts farmhouse she shares with her partner, artist Susan Mikula. "Between that, in that 12-hour slot, there is nothing that is not work."

Helpful hints for Ronan Farrow: "He doesn't need advice from me. He is such a great combination of charismatic and smart and creative. Launching a show is hard, and launching a show dayside is a very difficult environment. I hope he does this for a very long time because I think he could be a really big deal."