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Bernie Sanders

Radio Activist

Can Thom Hartmann reclaim the airwaves for America's radical middle?


Published March 3, 2004 at 6:17 p.m.

It's the top of the hour in a house overlooking downtown Montpelier, and the host of the nationally syndicated "Thom Hartmann Show" is waiting for a cue indicating he is back on the air. "Calling for a rapid and radical return to the old values that made America great," says an announcer's voice, "the values of democracy upon which this country was founded, here's Thom Hartmann."

The 2 p.m. introduction sounds generically patriotic enough to open a conservative talk-radio show. But Hartmann's liberal tendencies show through as soon as he begins to rail against the Bush administration's latest assault on the Bill of Rights. A recent guest on the program, Brett Bursey, has just been convicted by a federal court of "threatening the president." His crime? Standing in the crowd at a pro-Bush rally in Columbia, South Carolina, with a sign that read, "No war for oil."

"He was arrested solely -- the police officer told him -- for the contents of his sign. He wouldn't go to the designated ‘free speech zone,'" Hartmann tells his listeners from his small home studio, where a cat snoozes contently at his feet. "What happened to the First Amendment and the right of the people to peaceably assemble to petition their government for a redress of grievances? What's happening to America?"

Next, Hartmann takes a phone call that is fed to him from a remote studio in Detroit. "Kyle," a college-aged listener in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is concerned that Ralph Nader's run for the presidency will once again split the progressive vote and hand Bush the election. Hartmann's assessment? Nader won't be a factor come November. Still, he is angered at Nader's apparent indifference to how his campaign disenfranchises liberal voters and ultimately harms the democratic process.

"Nader says that no one in Europe would dare tell a third-party candidate that he can't run. Well, that's because in Europe, a third party doesn't harm the other party that it is most closely aligned with," Hartmann says. "How can Ralph Nader be so ignorant of politics and history?" He then launches into an impromptu lesson about European-style proportional representation, deftly spouting names, dates and other historical facts without once referring to notes or reference books.

Hartmann's encyclopedic intellect is impressive, though he doesn't seem to notice the symbolic significance of his last caller's location: Cape Girardeau, Missouri, is the hometown of conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh. It's been less than a year since Hartmann's three-hour daily program went national, but already the 53-year-old Vermonter has struck at the heart of conservative America. Since April 2003, "The Thom Hartmann Show" has been picked up by 23 stations from coast to coast, in markets as liberal as San Francisco and as conservative as Grand Rapids, Michigan. In the latter, "The Thom Hartmann Show" now airs opposite "The Rush Limbaugh Show" on a station owned by the media giant Clear Channel radio network.

Hartmann is by no means the first progressive to try to reclaim the airwaves from Limbaugh and the other angry conservatives of his ilk who have dominated political talk radio for more than a decade. Actually, his show is part of a growing movement to broaden the spectrum of on-the-air political discourse. That trend includes nationally syndicated programs like the Vermont-based "Bernie Sanders Show," Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" and a new liberal radio network expected to launch soon called Air America Radio, which will feature progressive hosts such as Al Franken and Janeane Garafalo.

Haven't heard "The Thom Hartmann Show" yet? No wonder, since the program, which is billed as "uncommon sense from the radical middle," is still so new it hasn't even been picked up in its home state yet. That said, "The Thom Hartmann Show" actually got its start about a year ago with a brief stint on TALK 1070, a small, daytime-only AM station with a studio in St. Albans.

But Hartmann's visibility in Vermont is bound to improve. This week, the network that has been airing his program for the last year -- the UAW union-bankrolled "i.e. America Radio Network" in Detroit -- disbanded. So Hartmann, an aggressive entrepreneur and self-promoter, launched his own company to self-syndicate the show. Already, it has been picked up by the Sirius Satellite Radio system, and is being beamed to stations throughout North America. "The Thom Hartmann Show" also attracts about 10,000 listeners each month in more than 100 countries via the World Wide Web.

As Hartmann prepares for the final half-hour of his show during another commercial break, his wife and producer, Louise, shows me around their home, a beautiful gingerbread cottage built in 1850 for Vermont painter Thomas Waterman Wood. The couple moved to Vermont about four years ago from Atlanta to escape the smog and crime and live in northern New England, which they love. Through the lead-paned windows in the dining room, Hartmann's car can be seen parked in the driveway. It's a Toyota Prius hybrid, with bumper stickers that read, "Abolish Corporate Personhood" and "Eat My Voltage."

Hartmann is quite a high-voltage personality himself. A bookshelf in the dining room is filled with many of the books he has written or contributed to, including a few that have been translated into German and Japanese. This year alone, he is releasing three new titles. In all, Hartmann is a best-selling author of at least 18 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including several on Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. Yes, he's got that challenge, but it, too, has worked to his advantage.

"Oh, there's no doubt about it. I am easily bored," Hartmann confesses. "When you have someone who is relatively unwounded by the system, has any modicum of intellect and ADHD, you have someone who's going to have a very interesting life. When you have someone who is badly wounded by the system or is intellectually challenged and has ADHD, you have someone who is going to wind up in prison."

Hartmann's website,, includes an exhaustive, three-page biography posted under the heading, "The Gift of ADHD." It's an apropos title, considering that Hartmann's hyperactive career is quite literally all over the map. In addition to the 10 years he spent working in radio and television broadcasting during the 1960s and '70s, Hartmann is also a former editor, licensed pilot, private detective, acupuncturist, electronics technician and chartered herbalist. He holds a Ph.D. in homeopathic medicine. He has lectured to hundreds of thousands of people on five continents. And he has launched seven successful businesses, including a travel agency that was featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. It's the kind of resume that could make Tony Robbins feel like a slacker.

Hartmann is also a licensed psychotherapist. In 1978, he and his wife founded the New England Salem Children's Village, a 132-acre residential treatment facility in New Hampshire for abused and severely disturbed children. Hartmann still serves as president of the board. He has helped the International Salem program set up similar treatment facilities in Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.

During his radio program, Hartmann often discusses the failures of globalization and how they are reflected in the slums of Mexico City, Calcutta and Bangladesh. No armchair warrior, he speaks from years of firsthand experience living abroad. Since 1978, Hartmann has been a regular volunteer with the International Salem program, which has taken him to remote regions of the world. In 1980, he entered a war zone in Uganda following the ouster of dictator Idi Amin and negotiated with the provisional government for land to build a hospital and refugee center. The facility is still in operation and treats more than 500 patients a day. "That's kind of my tithing," says Hartmann, who always pays his own way on international missions. "Actually, it's more fun than putting money in the collection plate at church."


At 3 p.m., Hartmann signs off his broadcast for the day and joins us at the dining room table. The Michigan native is tall and lanky, with angular features, a neatly trimmed beard and an intense gaze. Dressed in a beige cardigan sweater, corduroys and rimless glasses, he exudes a polite, professorial air. He speaks in the practiced and well-modulated voice of a broadcast veteran -- though by this time of the day it also reveals his fatigue.

Considering Hartmann's conservative, midwestern upbringing, it's ironic that he would eventually become an advocate for the rapid return to liberal values. He grew up in a working-class household in Lansing, Michigan, where his father, a staunch Republican, worked as a bookkeeper in a machine shop. As a youngster, he shared his father's right-wing point of view.

"In 1964, I was 13 years old and read John Stormer's None Dare Call It Treason, and I knew the communists were coming to get us and I had to do something about it," he recalls. As a result, in September and October of 1964, Hartmann was going door to door in his hometown handing out campaign literature for Barry Goldwater. Three years later, however, he was squaring off with police in East Lansing during frequent anti-war protests. At age 17 he met a fellow peace activist, Michigan's then-assistant attorney general's 15-year-old daughter, whom he later married. He and Louise have been together ever since and have three grown children.

"I went from the extreme right to the extreme left in a couple of years due to the Vietnam War," Hartmann recalls. "I've experienced the whole spectrum, both practically and philosophically." And that experience of traversing the political divide eventually helped him forge an identity he now calls "the radical middle." As he explains it, if you asked most people to identify where they stand on certain issues that are considered "liberal" in the true sense of the word -- protecting the environment, guaranteeing workers the right to organize, equal access to universal health care, free public education through college, and so on -- Hartmann asserts that 70 to 90 percent of all Americans would agree that these are desirable goals.

"So I refer to my program as ‘uncommon sense from the radical middle' because I think that I do speak for most Americans, even those who think they are conservatives or whatever other label they apply to themselves," Hartmann says. "And we need immediate change -- that's the definition of ‘radical' -- because this country has been hijacked by a bunch of extremists who aren't even true to traditional conservative thinking."

Apparently, a growing number of Americans who agree with him are tuning in to hear his point of view. Phil Tower is operations manager and program director of WTKG, a 1000-watt AM station in Grand Rapids that has been carrying "The Thom Hartmann Show" since the end of December.

"I've been very pleased with Thom's show because he's very articulate," Tower reports. "Thom is really a breath of fresh air and I'm really enjoying the feedback we're getting from people who thought all along that talk radio was only going to be right-wing and nothing else."

As Towers points out, Grand Rapids seems like an unlikely market for Hartmann to succeed in. The mostly middle- and upper-middle-class city is predominantly white, conservative and Republi-can. In fact, it's home to the national headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. Likewise, WTKG is owned by Clear Channel Radio, which also owns WOOD, another AM talk-radio station in town. The two stations are now airing Hart-mann and Limbaugh opposite one another starting at noon each day.

Tower says he's been surprised by all the positive feedback he's received from listeners. "I've heard from some diehard Rush Limbaugh fans who have called and said, ‘Hey, it's nice having this guy on the air, even though I think he's full of crap,'" Tower says. "We thought there'd be more of an outcry, but I think people are realizing that too much on one side of the spectrum is not healthy. It's just boring."

Although Tower won't have definitive ratings for Hartmann's program until mid-March, he is optimistic about its long-term success with listeners and advertisers alike. And while he doesn't expect Hartmann to seriously threaten Limbaugh's market share in Grand Rapids, "We're just trying to have it on as a different voice, recognizing that there are enough liberals in this town," he says, "although a lot of them are hiding behind their cars and underneath their office desks."

Some critics might accuse Hartmann of a conflict of interest for his occasional rants against media consolidation and corporate dominance of the airwaves, especially when his own program now airs on a Clear Channel station. But Hart-mann doesn't see a problem there.

"I think that Clear Channel's interest ultimately is making money. And if they can make money by having a guy on talking about how bad corporations are, they're going to laugh all the way to the bank," Hartmann says. "It may be politically wise of me to moderate my raging against large media corporations, but I haven't. And I don't plan to."

Of course, Hartmann isn't simply offering up a progressive version of Limbaugh, full of piss and vinegar and theatrical displays of righteous indignation. If he were, it's unlikely he would have succeeded in places like Grand Rapids. Which isn't to suggest that Hartmann doesn't occasionally get irate on the air. "The trick is to do it appropriately and around real issues at real times," he says. "Otherwise, it comes across as gratuitous. You can't just say, ‘I'm going to be angry today.'"

Likewise, Hartmann doesn't go in for personal attacks on the president or his family, the way Limbaugh often did with the Clintons. He occasionally airs a juicy sound bite or two by the president -- on the day of my visit, Bush is heard saying, "When we're talking about war, we're really talking about peace." But Hartmann prefers to hammer the administration with the facts.

"It's one thing to say the president's policies are harming somebody. It's another thing to say the president is a fool," Hartmann says. "I don't think he is a fool. But even if I did, it doesn't help me or my cause to say so. Anway, I think he's far more dangerous than a fool."

Hartmann is also willing to discuss religion on the air, which may make him more likely than other progressive talk-show hosts to make inroads with more conservative or middle-of-the-road listeners: He identifies himself as a Christian. In fact, Hartmann is able to quote Scripture about as easily as he can quote The Federalist Papers.

"If you mean someone who was born and raised in that tradition and thinks Jesus said some pretty important things, that we ought to conduct ourselves consistent with his teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25, then yeah, I'm a Christian and proud of it," Hartmann says. In 1998, Hartmann was granted a private audience with Pope John Paul II. But he also "took refuge" from the Dalai Lama -- the rough equivalent of a Baptism. "So I guess I'm a Buddhist, too."

Hartmann says it's a travesty that Jerry Falwell has become Chris-tianity's de facto commentator on TV news networks like FOX and CNN. "Jerry Falwell doesn't represent Christians," Hartmann notes. "He represents a very small fringe cult within Christianity."


How is the future shaping up for Hartmann? Besides the upcoming release of his new book, Return of Democracy, which is being released by Random House on July 4, Hartmann is busy lining up new affiliates to pay for the year of satellite time to which he is already committed. As for getting his show picked up in Vermont, he's hoping that a major advertiser will come on board who can convince a local station that he's worth the investment.

"I think Thom is one of the most important voices in talk radio today," says Ken Squier, owner of WDEV in Waterbury, "because he's a fellow who has run corporations and yet he is a critic of how they are abusing their power." Squier, who is also a personal friend of Hartmann's, adds that he has spoken to Hartmann about carrying his program, but needs to figure out how it would fit into the station's current schedule, which already features left-leaning shows hosted by Sanders and former Progressive gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina.

Hartmann would probably be an easy sell in Vermont. When he made a passing reference on his program to a pesticide-free wine he buys from the Organic Wine Company in San Rafael, California, the owner called him the next day to sign up as a sponsor. Three weeks after the ads started to run, she called back and asked if they could put the commercials on hold for a while. It seems the small, family-owned winery was being inundated with orders and couldn't handle the volume.

As for the possibility of being carried on a public radio station, Hartmann says that a few stations out West have considered it. The problem is that his show is a commercial product, with advertising breaks formatted into the show. Moreover, public stations get their national feed from NPR's satellite, which would require Hartmann to buy additional time, an expense he's not prepared to absorb just yet.

He and Louise wake up every morning between 5 and 6 a.m. to prepare for the weekday show, which starts at noon, and they rarely finish their workday before 9 or 10 p.m. They've kept up a frenetic work pace for seven days a week since last April; he admits this has been one of the busiest times of their lives.

Beginning this week, the Hartmanns are producing the entire show right out of their home. While Thom operates the mixing board, Louise screens the phone calls that come in from all across North America. "Two of us are replacing what 10 people and $4 million worth of equipment used to do," Hartmann says. "It'll be interesting." But not impossible, especially for a man who seems able to do it all.