“The Rachel Maddow Show” debuts on MSNBC tonight, right behind “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” where she has become known as a guest and as a substitute host who can say what Mr. Olbermann might say without irritating as many people.
On the eve of back-to-back political conventions, Ms. Maddow talked to The Insider about her evolution from Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in political science to TV personality who is hard to pigeonhole. It’s a road that included stops as activist, predawn barrista and radio host. Now she’s the highest-profile out lesbian on the national TV news scene.
When MSNBC announced it was giving Ms. Maddow her weeknight TV show, the press release concluded with the simple, but unique, sentence: “Rachel is 35 years old and lives in New York City and rural western Massachusetts with her partner, artist Susan Mikula.”
So there also was talk about the difference between being a singular achiever and a pioneer who paves the way for others, and about the importance of cracks in glass ceilings.
The Insider: Your biography is intriguing, particularly the line that refers to a “stint with a jungle-themed company called Expresso Bongo, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.” What was Expresso Bongo and why don’t you want to talk about it?
Rachel Maddow: When I graduated from college, I left a little bit early and I moved to San Francisco and the first job I got was working the opening shift at Expresso Bongo, which was in the financial district. So it was [serving] people working in the financial industry on the West Coast. You can imagine how early I had to get to work, some time between 3 and 4 a.m., in order to serve quadruple, nonfat lattes to people who started their work while it was still very, very dark outside. I rode my bike to work and I was a very, very slow barrista. I’ve had a lot of odd jobs in my life, but that was—because of the jungle theme—that was probably one of the oddest.
The Insider: With your college education, barrista was the best you could do?
Ms. Maddow: [Laughs] I was being an activist. I was 21 at the time and I had a lot of stuff going on. I was in Act Up. I was doing work with a group called Health Care for the Homeless. And I had all sorts of other interests, in terms of what I was doing with the rest of my time, but my paid employ at that point was all about espresso.
The Insider: You were able to support yourself in San Francisco as a barrista?
Ms. Maddow: Sort of. That was in 1994. I lived on a crack alley called Sycamore Street. I do not think my rent was even $300 a month. I lived with a bunch of very interesting people. My roommate was a banjo player from Idaho, one of my several roommates.
The Insider: How do you evolve from an activist and reformer, with the educational background you’ve got, into a voice on the radio?
Ms. Maddow: I did my doctoral dissertation at Oxford and I ran out of money before I finished my dissertation—as frequently happens. I decided I needed to move back to the U.S. because I was out of money. I wanted to live someplace where I could work on my dissertation and have to pay little or no rent. My psychological strategy about making sure I got the dissertation done was to try to live somewhere where I would be very unhappy. I figured if I was happy somewhere, I might start enjoying myself, and if I were unhappy, I would want to leave. I tricked myself into believing that the only way to leave the place I was unhappy was through the door marked “Finish Dissertation.”
I moved to western Massachusetts. I had friends who had been running a B&B there and would allow me to stay without paying rent. I did odd jobs to support myself. Sort of on a dare from the friends I was living with, I auditioned for the sidekick job on the local Morning Zoo radio station, WRMX. Their news girl and sidekick was leaving. They held open and on-air auditions for her replacement.
I auditioned and they hired me and I started the next day. I was the sidekick and the news girl.
The Insider: The news girl. There’s some irony in that phrase.
Ms. Maddow: My job title was all one word: newsgirl.
The Insider: Most memorable morning?
Ms. Maddow: There are so many. I was at WMRX. I was the sidekick. Then I took a few months off to finish my dissertation. Then I ended up going to work at another station, WRSI, in Northhampton, Mass., which I think is the best music station in the country. I was their solo morning show host. I did that for a couple of years before I was at Air America. Over all the years that I did morning commercial radio, I loved all of it.
I loved doing snow days, you know, 45 seconds to read the names of 75 different elementary schools and explain what time they were opening and whether or not they were on skeleton staff. I did that with a surf guitar music bed under it. I’d read it like an auctioneer. One of our preschools was the Make Way for Ducklings School. I’d play this big quacking sound effect.
It was just me in the studio—except for when I finally got an intern at some point—it was usually just me doing all my own engineering and producing and deejaying. When I had to give away concert tickets, I would put on a long song, like from Miles Davis, lock the studio and then run upstairs—we were in the basement—and stand in the median on Main Street in Northampton, holding concert tickets. I would tell people: During this Miles Davis song, I will be on Main Street holding concert tickets; drive by and pick them up. People would stop at the median and get the concert tickets from me. Then I would run back downstairs before the song was over.
The Insider: Was this a job in which you learned or were able to employ a talent for having no pride?
Ms. Maddow: [Laughs] I guess I never think in terms of pride. I’ve always thought of myself as a real geek, as a real dork. Maybe that’s a lack of pride, but it probably also comes from a place of self-confidence. I’m not trying to compete at that level. I’m trying to have a good time and be good at what I do, and to be relatively un-self-conscious about it.
One of the liberating things about radio is that nobody cares what you look like. You can stand up, sit down, gesticulate, move around wildly, use a prop, anything you want. You’re just trying to be entertaining and informative and engaging. I think radio is probably good food for the soul in that way, because you can’t be too self-conscious.
The Insider: And yet one of the things we see in you is an ability to almost flirt with the camera. You just engage the camera.
Ms. Maddow: I’m glad it seems that way. I don’t think much about how I interact with the camera. Honestly, I am a little embarrassed by the idea that I am on-camera, because I never thought about my visual presentation to the world very much at all, and now I realize that I am in a very highly visual medium and that people are looking at me. The way I deal with it is, honestly, by not thinking about it very much. I try to focus on what it is that I’m saying.
The Insider: Now that you’re officially a TV personality, are there any cosmetic or sartorial suggestions that you’ve had to fend off or consider from friends, family, bosses?
Ms. Maddow: Over the past four years or so that I have been doing TV, I have received a lot of advice. I initially tried to sort of control everything about my appearance because I was insecure about it. What I’ve learned over time, and particularly in the past year or so at MSNBC, is that as long as I’m baseline comfortable about how I’m presenting—I’m wearing a suit that I know isn’t going to, you know, be a headline anywhere—I feel like they’ve sort of freed me up to not think about it very much.
It was interesting, though, when it became apparent that I was going to get this show, I sort of held my breath and asked the executives here: “Are you OK with what I look like? In asking this question, I cannot promise you I’m going to do what you say, but I want to know, is there something you want me to change about the way I look?” The answer was: “You look fine. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable.” That was really nice. I’m not sure what I would have done if the answer had been any different.
I feel like if I’m doing my job, the story and the area of focus is not what I’m wearing, it’s what I’m saying.
The Insider: You say that you love arguing with conservatives, Who’s no fun to argue with?
Ms. Maddow: If somebody wants to attack personally or insult me personally, that hurts my feelings. I don’t enjoy that. I have experienced very little of that in television. I sort of braced myself when I start doing this for a lot more of that than I have experienced.
The Insider: You once turned down an invitation to be on Fox News Channel.
Ms. Maddow: The one invitation I have ever received to be on Fox I turned down.
The Insider: What was your reason?
Ms. Maddow: They had asked me to join them to discuss a celebrity kiss between two women—I think it was Britney Spears and Madonna—and I thought that it was one of my friends calling me playing a joke.
The Insider: So it wasn’t any philosophical, “Well, I can’t win that one” reason, it was just that you didn’t take it seriously?
Ms. Maddow: What on earth do I have to say about that? I could go on and say, “No comment.” I don’t have a take on that. I don’t even have an exclamation to express to you about that. It was incredible to me that they were looking down their list of people they could potentially call and they decided, “We’ve never called this woman before, but on this story, she’ll be perfect!”
The Insider: She’s got experience.
Ms. Maddow: Exactly. I wonder why.
The Insider: Have you ever found yourself at a loss for words?
Ms. Maddow: Yes, frequently. There are moments in cable television when it is best to not force the conversation where the conversation does not want to go. … I’ve never held my tongue on something that I felt strongly about, but sometimes I’ve held my tongue because I felt like I didn’t have a strong thing to say.
The Insider: If you could change one thing about coverage of politics on television, what would it be?
Ms. Maddow: Ummmmm. It’s not going to come as a surprise to hear me say that I think that “Countdown” is a spectacular show. A lot of what makes one show different from another is the personality and the sensibility of the host. A lot of it is the standards, the expectations and the ambitions of the production. I guess what I like sometimes is production that’s really ambitious: That you try to actually move the story forward, you try to actually do reporting, you try to actually do something other than kicking around a topic. I think that this stuff, even when the news is funny, I take it seriously. If it’s just discussing something about which the facts are all entirely known, and we’re just saying what we wonder about it or we think about it, I just don’t feel that’s ambitious enough to justify the airtime sometimes.
The Insider: At this point, do you ever pinch yourself?
Ms. Maddow: I am a little overwhelmed, I will admit. I’m a little overwhelmed in part because this is happening this week. We’ve got the Democratic convention next week, then I’m home for one day, which I plan to spend fishing, then I’m back to Minneapolis covering both for Air America and MSNBC, then I’m back and my show starts on Monday. It’s great. This is exactly the kind of problem you want to have in life.
I’ve been thinking about this prospect for a lot longer than it was ever even conceivably viable. I had a lot of ideas already. A lot of what has to happen is just logistics, getting staff in place, getting graphics done, getting photos taken, talking to people in the press. … There wasn’t a generic template out there that they’re slotting me into as a host. I’ve been talking with folks here as long as anybody would talk to me about it, even though it was hypothetical for 99% of the time we were talking about it, and I’m ready to go. If they told me to be on the air tonight, I’d be ready to be on the air tonight.
The Insider: Will you have a corps of guests you return to as often as possible?
Ms. Maddow: I think that’s possible. I think we’re going to sort of see how it goes. In a production sense, I’m not committed to having a regular stable or rotating cast. I don’t have a strong commitment to that either way.
The Insider: Anything you want to say to people who are going to have to break a longtime viewing habit to watch you?
Ms. Maddow: This show is going to be a lot of fun. Anybody’s who willing to check it out is going to be pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to be like other things you see on cable news necessarily. I am not your typical cable news host. I think it’s going to be informative and comfortable. I don’t have the most gravitas in the world. I’m a regular person, but I take the news and politics very seriously, and I take the fun that I have with news and politics very seriously. To have this job at this time on this network in that time slot, I just couldn’t be happier.
The Insider: Anything you want to say to the pundits who say your hire is the end of the argument about how left-wing MSNBC has become?
Ms. Maddow: Don’t judge until you’ve seen the show. I am a lot of things. People can choose to pigeonhole me and decide that they know the full story about me.
You can decide MSNBC has sealed the deal on going for younger viewers because they’ve hired a 35-year-old host. You can say they’ve sealed the deal on going after women aggressively. You can say that because I am a liberal, because of my educational background, because I am obsessed with national security…. Any of those things you could use as the basis for pigeonholing me, the show, the network or this era in American media. I think if you want to be fair about it, wait until you see the show.
The Insider: Does it matter that you’re the highest-profile out lesbian on national television news?
Ms. Maddow: I don’t know. I think it’s neat, but it’s not my call to say, really. I don’t mean to be disappointing in my response, but it’s not really for me to say. I think that breaking glass ceilings does matter. Pioneers matter because they change both our conscious and subconscious understanding of what is possible in our country and in this time. It’s also true that there are people who have been singular achievers who have not been pioneers because they have paved the way for people who have come behind them. You try to clear a path so it is easier for the next generation.
But in terms of how that affects my day-to-day life and my thinking about my career, I’m trying to do the best that I can at what I do. I’m trying to be recognized for my work. I am, to a certain extent, at the mercy of any sort of prejudices that are holding people back from how they might want to include me in their plans. I can’t make those things go away.
My choices are to be out—which is not really a choice for me, that’s who I am, I’ve been out since I was 17—and to be as good as I can at what I do.