Rachel Maddow: How This Wonky-Tonk Woman Won TV

"The Rachel Maddow Show"
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Maddow's best ratings came during the 2008 presidential election, and MSNBC execs are banking 2012 will produce a similar lift.

MSNBC's primetime superstar delivers news with agenda, but not hysteria, as her style of civil political discussion reveals a turning tide (even Roger Ailes says Fox News has gone too far) that may help stem cable's ratings erosion in an increasingly unpleasant political environment.

"Thank you for coming," says Rachel Maddow to a visiting reporter. "Why are we doing this?"

It's the last Friday in September, and we are walking briskly -- at 5-foot-11, Maddow always moves at a near-jog -- toward the elevator on the fourth floor of her office at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters.

The MSNBC host is somewhat bemused and clearly curious as to why her visitor is here today. Attention is not something she seeks out or is entirely comfortable with, which may sound disingenuous for someone in an industry thick with titanic egos. But she does not view her show as a glamour perch; something to be parlayed into superficial celebrity friendships or hosting gigs at star-stuffed charity events.

"I don't value a TV show for the sake of having a TV show," explains Maddow. "The idea was to do something cool with a platform that reaches a lot of people."

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The Rachel Maddow Show, which was launched after Countdown With Keith Olbermann in the midst of the wild and woolly 2008 presidential campaigns, is now the No. 1 program on MSNBC, which has surpassed CNN in primetime for eight consecutive quarters (but still lags behind Fox News). In September, The Rachel Maddow Show earned its first Emmy -- in the inaugural category of news discussion and analysis -- for her reporting from Afghanistan. If she is still worried about reaching lots of people, her upcoming cameo in George Clooney's  Oscar-contending The Ides of March shows that her profile is expanding well beyond wonky news circles.           

MSNBC executives are banking on Maddow (along with fellow hosts including Lawrence O'Donnell, Ed Schultz and most recently Al Sharpton) to expand the network's brand in a way that has momentum beyond the current political season. Unlike Fox News -- which is still the main cable news destination for Americans from the center to the far right -- or CNN -- which sees its ratings spike with big breaking news events -- MSNBC's fortunes are tied to its primetime personalities. And Maddow is its marquee personality.

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Although she eschews the more vituperative combativeness that characterized the final years of Olbermann's tenure at MSNBC and has not talked to Olbermann since he abruptly broke with the network in January, she has become the new ambassador of the brand that he helped build. "Rachel is informed, she does her homework, she preps better and longer than anyone, she is fair and always smart," says MSNBC president Phil Griffin, who has been in his role since July 2008. "And that's a big part of defining this network."

The 38-year-old former Air America radio host -- the first openly gay person to host a primetime news program -- is a progressive voice that eviscerates with facts, not pejoratives. She also courts Republicans, though most of them won't come on her show. A poster girl for civilized give-and-take in an increasingly unpleasant and contentious political climate, she has won allegiance as bitter partisanship seems to not only have stalled the nation's political process, but cable news ratings as well.

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It's no coincidence that Maddow's kill-them-with-kindness brand-defining dominance at MSNBC comes at this moment. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes admitted recently that the network has embarked an a "course correction" and that departed host Glenn Beck "had become a bit of a branding issue" by doing things like calling President Obama a racist.

"She's unique," says Matt Delzell, director of entertainment for branding agency The Marketing Arm, of Maddow's broadening appeal. "She's not afraid to criticize liberals despite being a liberal. That uniqueness and her underdog appeal draw people in, regardless of whether they agree with her opinions."

Still, Maddow strives to keep a low profile. "My agent [Jean Sage of Napoli Management Group] has a standing order from me, if I am asked to do something that is not my TV show, the answer is no. I can't [even] do the one thing I'm paid to do," she says of her anchor skills, revealing a rare glimpse of insecurity.

There was one recent extracurricular exception. A script for The Ides of March on her office bookshelf prompts a query and Maddow tells how she came to film the obligatory news anchor cameo for the film.

"My agent was like, 'George Clooney called. I know, it's no.' And I was like, 'Oh really, George Clooney? It's really hard to say no to him.' So there I am, I'm a Hollywood sucker. I'll do anything for George Clooney."

On this day, Maddow is frantically working to finish writing segments for that night's live 9 p.m. show. She is in the office at noon and writes sometimes up until 15 minutes before air. "I have bad time-management skills," she admits. And a photo shoot for this story that is already vexing her cuts into her prep time. The stylist has brought several looks for Maddow; one is an Alessandro Dell'Acqua tuxedo suit, Ralph Lauren white-collared shirt and vintage black and white spectator shoes. Maddow smiles and says: "I'll try it. But because I am mannish looking, when other people try to dress me, it doesn't work. The whole androgynous thing goes away and I just end up looking like an ugly man or a 14-year-old boy."

Clearly, Maddow does not fit the visual stereotype of the female TV anchor -- beauty-pageant looks, short skirts, towering heels. But the time she saves by not spending it on her appearance she gets to spend on the substance of her show.



"I decided at the start of this that there are certain things that you need to do visually in order to be on TV," she says. "Like you need to wear a blazer and you need to have makeup put on you. You need to meet some basic conventions. I have a monochrome rainbow of the exact same $19 blazers [from H&M]. If you can commit to meeting those basic conventions in a way that is as low friction as possible, then you don't have to think about it again. The not thinking about it is an active value for me."

Maddow -- AIDS activist, Rhodes scholar and defense nerd (she's writing a book on the military, and her father is a former Air Force captain) -- is something of an anomaly in the old boys club of cable news punditry. She approaches her show as an advocate, dedicating extensive coverage to an anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda that sought to criminalize same-sex relations, prisoner abuse in the Los Angeles County Jail and frequent segments on AIDS policy in the U.S.  She runs the daily 2 p.m. editorial meeting like a graduate seminar, challenging her young staff of a dozen producers to defend their segment pitches. A recent meeting on the afternoon the Obama administration announced that a drone strike had killed radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an Al Qaeda leader and American citizen, revolves around due process but also the "cognitive dissonance" of the Republican narrative that Democrats are soft on terror.

"It's hard to have due process with a drone. And Jesus Christ, who is Obama not going to kill? I feel like we could do the whole show on al-Awlaki," says Maddow. "I don't know if we should."

Executive producer Bill Wolff votes yes. "It's not like anybody's flocking to cable news right now. It would be a brand play," he says.

"It has to pay off though," says Maddow. "I think the key is to not stretch to do it, but to be qualitatively rigorous." But while she earnestly stands up for pet causes, she's also just as comfortable launching zingers at right-wing foes. She compares New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- who was being urged to enter a bereft Republican presidential field -- to Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog. "He's Christie, the Insult Comic Governor," she says.

The trademark sarcasm belies the one point right and left actually agree on: Maddow may be the most likable partisan person on TV. It's a position she took early on. McCain-Palin campaign adviser Nicolle Wallace met Maddow at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, a couple weeks before the premiere of Maddow's show, and Maddow asked Wallace if McCain would be willing to be a guest on her program.

"I think I'd [just] been booed by the Democrats who were standing around the MSNBC stage," says Wallace "I remember thinking, who is she kidding?! I am not going to put John McCain on MSNBC."

A few days later, Griffin called Wallace to press Maddow's case. "He said she was genuine and if McCain went on she would treat him with the utmost respect. And I remember thinking either they're all spinning me or this is going to be something different than what MSNBC has typically put on in primetime."

Wallace did not put McCain on, but these days, Wallace herself, and a handful of other opposing voices, are frequent guests.

"We just click," says erstwhile RNC chairman and on-air sparring partner Michael Steele. "She listens. It's one of the reasons I love going on her show. And when it's all said and done, no one is angry, no one is bloody."

“I certainly don’t agree with her politics at all, but she's a really nice person,” says Tucker Carlson, libertarian and founder of conservative web site The Daily Caller. “It’s very hard to find people who can argue well, who can argue from principal. She’s a person of principal.” 

Even the king of confrontation, Olbermann, respects Maddow's likability. "I think Rachel abhors being considered sweet," he says. "But there's a huge sweet streak right down the middle of her."

But her sunny disposition and respectful tone has not made it any easier for her to book major GOP guests -- unlike, say, Jon Stewart, whose show has a certain cachet for Republicans.

"I actually have a surprising number of Republican sources, maybe even more than I have Democratic sources," says Maddow. "But that doesn't mean they want to come on the air -- and that's the ultimate goal. I am buoyed by the fact that there are Republicans who have just seen me on TV and think, 'You know what, I could have a fruitful conversation with her that might help her understand the Republican world a little bit better.'"

But Maddow still manages to mingle convivially with those on the other side of the aisle and even had a brush with conservative kingmaker Sarah Palin at the White House Correspondents' Dinner afterparty in April. Maddow, who is an amateur mixologist, was tending bar at the Italian Embassy fete when Fox News host Greta Van Susteren introduced her to the former Alaska governor. Palin complimented an MSNBC ad that has Maddow sitting on the floor in her office surrounded by piles of paper.  "She thought it reflected well on us that we had chosen to highlight the work ethic behind the show," recalls Maddow. "And I thought that was an insightful analysis and a really nice thing to say."

And she has made very few enemies in a business marked by sharp elbows. Her not speaking to onetime mentor Olbermann since he left MSNBC is not out of emnity. "I'm not purposely avoiding him," she insists. "I think we've both been pretty busy."

But MSNBC executives were rankled by Olbermann's public statements about his intention to recruit Maddow to join him at Current TV, where he relaunched Countdown in June. And in July, they pre-emptively extended Maddow's contract, which had more than a year left, locking her in well beyond the 2012 election. Her new deal certainly came with a nice raise from the $2 million she was reportedly making -- and it's a far cry from the $6,000 per month she used to make at Air America.

“There isn’t any other job in TV that I want. There isn’t any other job in politics that I want,” says Maddow. “This is my goal and my big goal is to finally do this right. Someday I’m going to do the show I want to do.”


Maddow grew up in Castro Valley, Calif., a conservative suburb less than 30 miles east of the progressive hot-bed of San Francisco and (formerly) infamous for its Skinhead and Ku Klux Klan activity.

"I definitely grew up conscious of the violent extremist edge of politics," she says.

Maddow's father Robert was a captain in the Air Force and her mother Elaine is Canadian; she got her citizenship, says Maddow, because she wanted to vote. But Maddow's parents were not particularly political; she describes them as centrists, and her only sibling, an older brother David, 42, is "100 percent apolitical," she says.

Maddow realized she was gay while she was in high school and came out as the AIDS epidemic was devastating the gay community.  By the time she entered Stanford University in 1990, she was oriented toward activism and advocacy, working for ACT UP and other AIDS policy groups. She earned an undergraduate degree in public policy at Stanford and went on to a doctoral in political science on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford. She moved to Western Massachusetts where she had a community of friends and settled in to write her dissertation on AIDS and health care reform in prisons. She bounced around in a variety of menial jobs – lifeguarding, landscaping – until she landed her first radio job as the news girl on a morning drive-time program in Holyoke, Mass. 

"They didn't hire me because I had a strong interest in the news," she recalls. "They hired me because I had a nice voice and I was willing to get up that early for minimum wage."

By the time progressive radio network Air America was launched in 2004, Maddow had decided that she'd found her calling. She may not have quite established her liberal media credentials, but her radio skills had developed enough to co-host a program with Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D. When it was canceled a year later, she got her own show, which she continued to do into her full-time tenure at MSNBC. (Air America was shuttered in 2010.)

Maddow keeps an apartment in Manhattan, but she decamps to the solitude of Northampton, Mass. on weekends, where she lives with her girlfriend of 12 years, artist Susan Mikula, and Poppy, their black Labrador. The couple met in 1999 when Mikula hired Maddow to dig tree stumps out of her front yard. "It was love at first sight," says Maddow.

Gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, but Maddow says she and Mikula have no immediate wedding plans. "We know a lot of people who have gotten married but I don't think we feel any urgency about it."

Later she admits that she's actually ambivalent about the cultural impact of gay marriage.

"I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships," she explains. "And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture."

The trappings of television news stardom have facilitated certain material comforts. But Maddow and Mikula still live in the house that Maddow arrived at more than ten years ago. Asked what she does to relax, she offers: "I fish," and shows me a picture to prove it. In it Maddow is wearing a baseball cap and her black-frame glasses and holding a rainbow trout under her chin.

"I just bought a boat," she says. "Yes, I'm now so rich and famous that I bought a boat."

She scours her email and comes up with a picture of the vessel: a row boat jammed into the back of a friend's pick-up truck. "That's my yacht lifestyle."



The Rachel Maddow Show premiered on Sept. 8, 2008. It was the Monday after the Republican National Convention introduced Palin and her "you betcha" brand of populism to an electorate already in full swoon over Barack Obama.  It was an auspicious beginning for Maddow. On her very first night on the air, she beat Larry King Live in the ratings. By that time, the CNN anchor's heyday was already in the rearview mirror. He would sign off in December 2010 to be replaced by the current occupant, Piers Morgan, three weeks later. By her third night on the air, Maddow had surpassed tune-in for her big-bat lead-in: Countdown with Keith Olbermann (635,000 to 519,000), in the all-important 25-54 demographic upon which most news programming is sold. Her ratings would come back down to earth; but she would finish her first full quarter on the air No. 2 in the 9 p.m. time slot in both total viewers (1.67 million) and the demo (606,000), behind perennial leader Sean Hannity on Fox News. It would be the best ratings performance in the 9 p.m. hour in MSNBC's history.

Olbermann had been waging his own on-air war against the Bush administration since the start of the Iraq War in 2003. And by 2008, the country's political center had shifted left and MSNBC had the wind at its back. Maddow had been making guest appearances on the network as far back as 2005, when she was a frequent guest on Tucker Carlson's The Situation and she became a regular contributor to the network's 2008 presidential primary coverage where she was paired with another arch conservative, Pat Buchanan. She began to fill in for Olbermann in April 2008.

"She was certainly as well-informed as anybody we had on the air," says Olbermann. "She certainly knew more about every one of those topics than I did. But there was also a mirthful quality to her. You have to have some--not antipathy to the medium--but some kind of suspicion of it combined with a willingness to mock it to really succeed."

An eight-day stint as substitute host of Countdown in July 2008 made it abundantly clear that Maddow was host material.

"We put her in Keith's slot and she held the number," says Griffin. "No one had ever held that number before." By her fifth night on Countdown, Griffin had made the decision she was going on in the hour after, and a little over a month later, on Aug. 20, MSNBC made an official announcement. More than three years in, Maddow still beats CNN in the time slot, though her show was down 15 percent in September year-over-year. And her lead-in, O'Donnell's Last Word, has lost ground since inheriting the slot from Olbermann.

Some of that could be due to the swing of the political pendulum; two years into a presidency marked by sinking approval ratings, a faltering global economy and record unemployment, MSNBC is no longer riding a wave of Obama mania. With the rise of the Tea Party, general disenchantment with the president and a resurgence of Republican vigor, she is peddling into the winds of a rightward shift in the nation's political sentiments. But she still has a solid base, consistently delivering  close to a million viewers a night at 9 p.m., and with nearly 2 million Twitter followers and more than 400,000 Facebook fans.

Maddow may have been part of a one-two punch with Olbermann, but she is not aping her former colleague’s combative style. If Olbermann set upon Republican foes with a big stick, Maddow offers an olive branch.

“I think we’re a healthier place today,” says Griffin. "We don’t want ugliness. We don’t want pettiness and name-calling. We want smart, thoughtful discussion with a point of view.”

The door to Maddow's office bursts open and she sprints down the hall toward the elevator. It is exactly 8:45 p.m. fifteen minutes before she must be in her seat at Studio 3A. Less than a minute later, she is in the makeup chair on the third floor. This is a nightly ritual.

Maddow's time-management issues are a by-product of her perfectionist work ethic and what Wolff terms her "bad radio habits."

"She used to have a three-hour radio show every day," he says, by way of explaining that she orders up more stories that can ever fit into a 44-minute TV hour. "We produce more TV than ever gets on the air."

During one week last month, Jimmy Carter, Michael Moore and former CIA interrogator Ali Soufan were all booked for the show. And all of them had books to promote.

"Rachel comes to me and says, 'We have to postpone Michael Moore because I can't read three books this weekend I can only read two,'" recalls Wolff. "And Michael Moore was all hurt until we told him, 'She has to read your book.' Michael says, 'Nobody reads the book!' Maddow totally reads the book."