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 Hartmann's 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 registered Rebublican. "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.