Stephanie Miller Interview
I’ve got a weakness for Stephanie Miller. I happen to think she’s the best thing going in progressive talk radio. For three hours every weekday morning, The Stephanie Miller Show provides breezy, often hilarious radio. But it’s got a sharp point. It takes the air out of the pompous windbags of the right.
Miller and her executive producer, Chris Lavoie, grab the most embarrassing soundbites from Fox and play them for all to hear. “We listen, so you don’t have to” is the motto of this segment, called “Rightwing World.” Another sparkle is Jim Ward, an actor who does a vast array of voice impressions: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Schwarzenegger, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Tom Cruise, among many others. Not only is his voice spot on, but Ward manages, time after time, to parody his targets to risible effect.
Miller, forty-four, presides over all the zaniness, throwing in her own schticks, including “Stand-up News” and frequent mentions of her “future husband list,” which has recently featured Senator Russ Feingold. She and Ward and Lavoie also invent their own little game shows, such as “Republicans Eating Their Own” and “Really Bad Analogies.”
Syndicated not by Air America but by the Jones Radio Networks, The Stephanie Miller Show runs on dozens of stations around the country, including in Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. You can find out more about it at stephaniemiller.com.
I spoke with Miller on May 19 after she and Ward did the show live at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin. Though tired from the performance and the autographing afterward, Miller was graciousand quippy as always. Here’s an edited version of our conversation, which you can hear in its entirety by clicking here.
Q: I understand you are the daughter of Republican Congressman William Miller, who was Barry Goldwater’s running mate in 1964.
Stephanie Miller: I was actually abandoned by wolves and then raised by Republicans. It’s a very traumatic life story. My dad’s been gone about twenty years now. I still contend to this day that he and Barry Goldwater would just be appalled at what’s happened to their party. Barry Goldwater used to talk about the undue influence of the religious right on the Republican Party back in the ’80s. He was pro-choice. He was pro-gay rights. He used to say about gays in the military: “You don’t have to be straight. You just have to shoot straight.” I can’t even imagine what they’d think today about their party.
Q: What has happened to the Republican Party since then?
Miller: It’s just amazing. It’s gotten more and more and more in the pocket of the religious right. It’s gotten meanspirited. All they do is fearmonger and divide people. They play to people’s worst instincts. My politics just kind of developed over time as a reaction.
I remember Pat Buchanan’s speech, you know how meanspirited it was. That was kind of a turning point for me.
Q: You did a TV show with Pat Buchanan’s sister, Bay Buchanan, on CNBC. What was that like?
Miller: Ugh! I’m sorry, it’s my own personal Vietnam flashback. I hosted Equal Time with her for a year on CNBC. And she is every bit as delightful as she seems. We shared a dressing room. And I can be the first to report that she is Pat. It is Pat Buchanan with a wig, and she’s not fooling anybody.
Q: Bush’s numbers are real low right now. What do you make of the people who are still with him at this late date?
Miller: That is the question: Who are these people? What do they think he’s done a good job at? I’m trying to be fair, but what is he good at? You look at Iraq, you look at Katrina. His appointments, Michael Brown. I don’t know where to start. I have Bush Administration Attention Outrage Deficit Disorder.
My personal favorite poll number is the President’s 2 percent approval rating among blacks. Which is within the margin of error. Which leads to all sorts of mind-boggling possibilities, scientifically: Is it possible that more black people hate the President than are actually alive today?
Do you think black ghosts are coming back to hate him?
Do you think they can read black sonograms at this point?
Are doctors saying, “We don’t know if this is a boy or a girl, but we know this baby hates George W. Bush”?
Q: Cheney’s overall poll numbers are even lower than Bush’s.
Miller: And that’s shocking, isn’t it, as cuddly as he is? He and all his mechanical parts. Cuddly, cuddly, cuddly.
Q: What do you make of the Democrats?
Miller: I like fighters. That’s why I love Russ Feingold. I love Barbara Boxer. And Howard Dean and John Conyers. Democrats I talk to around the country want their leaders to come out and fight for them.
Q: Well, why aren’t more Democrats coming out and fighting? Take censure, for instance. Feingold introduced the bill. Boxer is in favor. Tom Harkin is in favor. And Kerry came on board finally. But that’s it! Everyone else is running away.
Miller: It’s ridiculous, and frankly, censure is lite.
Q: What’s your radio background?
Miller: Mama’s been doing this since the Catskills. I’ve been in radio, God, twenty years. I started as a stand-up comedian. I wanted to be Carol Burnett when I was growing up. Radio was just kind of an accident. I did morning radio in my hometown of Buffalo, then went to Rochester, then Chicago, and then New York.
I didn’t start talk radio until ’95 in L.A. The show was very successful, and they actually tried to syndicate it nationally, but I couldn’t get stations. It was like, “We don’t care that she’s funny and she’s got great ratings. She’s liberal!”
Now that progressive talk is here, I’ve got another opportunity to do it. And frankly, there were a lot of people who were doing it very successfully locally, like Randi Rhodes and Ed Schultz. None of us really had a chance to do it nationally because there weren’t enough stations to support it.
Q: How many outlets do you have for the show now?
Miller: We’re adding every week. I’m not even sure. I think we’re up to fifty-sixty stations. There are only about seventy-five or eighty commercial progressive stations in the whole country, as opposed to the 600 Rush Limbaugh is on. We’re still a really new format. And for as much as Bill O’Reilly can go and scream, “Oh, liberal talk isn’t working,” someone should ask him why Clear Channel and other huge companies are flipping a different station every week to progressive talk. Because they’re making money. They’re taking stations that are at almost zero ratings and getting ratings.
And listen, everybody says, “Oh, the evil Clear Channel.” Let me tell you something: They will put anything on the air if it makes money. If someone pitched hippos farting for three hours, they would put it on the air if it makes money. That’s what it’s about. I keep trying to make that point: This is not a political movement, progressive talk. The minute we think it’s a political movement—about getting Democrats elected or whatever—we’re dead. It’s entertainment. We’ve got to get ratings.
Q: Do you think a lot of progressive talk has been too medicinal?
Miller: Oh, I don’t know. I’ll let the Republicans eat their own. I go out of my way to say good things about other liberal radio shows. But you know Rush Limbaugh, whether you hate him or not, he’s a great entertainer; he’s a great broadcaster. That’s what this takes. It’s a business. That’s what people have to understand.
Sometimes liberals get very, “Why don’t you talk about this? You should be doing this.” This is not some kind of a committee meeting; this is an entertainment show. And we’re not going to get our message out unless we can stay in business.
Q: Plus, no one who doesn’t already agree with you is going to listen to you if it’s just, “Here’s the party line.”
Miller: That’s the dirty little secret. It’s not only progressives who listen to progressive radio. Rush Limbaugh wouldn’t have his ratings if it was just conservatives listening to him. I don’t know how many times a phone call or e-mail starts with, “I don’t agree with anything you say but you’re funny as hell so I listen to your show, I love your show.”
You don’t have to think exactly like me. When people go, “I don’t agree with everything you say,” you know what, if you agree with everything anyone says, you’re an idiot.
Q: How did you decide on the format of the show?
Miller: This show is kind of a conglomeration of a lot of the shows I’ve done before. Comedy, some politics, though we talk less about politics than any other show in the format. Because I do think on either side that gets tiresome. You can’t be twenty-four hours of just Bush-bashing.
Q: I’m sure there are people out there—it may crush your feelings—who have never heard your show.
Miller: Oh, Lord, God!
Q: Could you describe some of the bits, like “Rightwing World.”
Miller: A lot of these features just sort of develop naturally. “Rightwing World” is obviously clips from Fox and others. It’s amazing. You get what the Republican talking points are for the day because they are endlessly repeated in a million different forms. O’Reilly says it. Hannity says it. Savage says it. We do “Rightwing World” mostly for comedy. It’s really just a forum to mock them mercilessly. But it’s also instructive to people: This is the propaganda you’re getting. And this is why what they’re saying is not true. There’s “Stand-up News,” top stories of the day, and that’s when Jim will do some impressions that we imply are soundbites.
Q: How did you get Jim Ward on the show?
Miller: He was my voice guy on my last show for the ABC Radio Network.
Q: So you guys have been together for a while?
Miller: Oh, we’ve been friends for years. Jim and Chris and I. One change we made from the last show was he wasn’t in the studio. We prerecorded some bits. He wasn’t there live with me. With this show, I decided I wanted him there live, and I love the way it’s come out. I love him being there. It’s great to have someone to bounce off of. We end up ad-libbing so much stuff.
Q: How many impressions does he do?
Miller: He does everything. It helps that he’s schizophrenic and very heavily medicated. We also do “Tinsel Talk,” which is Hollywood news, and Jim will do more impressions. Jim is the most committed actor. When he does Bob Dole, he actually picks up the pencil. He scrunches his glasses up when he does Rumsfeld. I say, Jim, we’re on radio. He’s done a fair amount of television and film. He normally gets killed in the first ten minutes of every movie he’s in. He was the doctor who got killed in Spider-Man.
Q: You mentioned Chris, that’s Chris Lavoie, your executive producer. Either he or you must spend an inordinate amount of time watching Fox News. Who gets that chore?
Miller: We both do, but Chris is the technical person on the show, so he’s got to TiVo it and pull the soundbites. But I watch it too, and I’ll sometimes call him and ask, “Did you see this, this, and this?” Or I’ll say, “Did you see O’Reilly said this?”
Q: Do you have a sense as to why O’Reilly is so popular?
Miller: Probably because crazy is kind of fun to watch. You’re thinking, “Is he really that megalomaniacal? Or is it schtick?” Does he really not get that the guy caught in a phone sex scandal can’t lecture people on parenting and family values?
Q: Some people on the left say we need our own Fox. Do you agree?
Miller: Fox succeeds because it’s entertaining. It’s like a rightwing freak show. If we could do something entertaining—it’s why The Daily Show works—yeah, I think we could do it. But could you do a liberal propaganda tool that would bore the bejesus out of people? No.
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