America’s Talking: Back to the Future

A few days ago I joined a Facebook group for alumni of America’s Talking. It has 58 members… and counting.

AT was a startup network in 1994 which grew out of the retransmission consent controversy. Networks wanted to charge the cable companies for carrying their signals. Instead of paying, cable operators cut a deal with NBC to carry a new channel, based in Fort Lee NJ. Under the leadership of Roger Ailes, the channel was launched on July 4, promising to be an interactive conversation about the hot topics of the day. Hard to believe now, but 14 years ago only a handful of people were capable of being on the internet and watching TV at the same time, so the interactivity was limited to phone calls and an occasional email read on the air. Our constant tagline, “Join the conversation at 1-800-988 TALK,” is permanently tattooed on my brain.

Ailes had 24 hours of programming to fill on a low budget and he put some edgy ideas out there. “Pork” was a show devoted to exposing government pork barrel spending, “Bugged” invited viewers to tell what bugged them, and “Am I Nuts?” allowed you to get an answer to that question from a couple of real psychologists. They held a contest to pick one of the hosts and the winner, an advertising writer named Bill McCuddy, still covers entertainment for the Fox News network.

I hosted a two-hour Monday through Friday show from 4-6 p.m. EST with Chris Matthews. “In Depth” was a daily conversation about the top news stories. We covered a couple of big breaking stories like the Oklahoma City bombing and the OJ trials, but politics was the meat and potatoes of the show. I was honored with a national cable ace nomination as best newscaster, and this didn’t sit well with Chris, who wanted his own show. When he got his wish, John Gibson joined me as the co-anchor, and I got my wish to anchor my half of the show from the Los Angeles.

AT quickly grew to 40 million households and became a victim of its own success. NBC combined with Microsoft to relaunch the channel as MSNBC in 1996, leaving Ailes to move over to Fox and start the Fox News channel. Some of AT’s male hosts, such as Gibson, McCuddy, Steve Doocy and Mike Jerrick, also moved over to Fox. I’ve always thought it odd that none of the women from AT were given the same opportunity despite the fact that some, including Carol Martin and E. Jean Carroll, had extraordinary talent.

Looking over the list of AT group tembers on Facebook, it is also noteworthy that the little startup network launched the careers of dozens of people behind the scenes, people who are still influencing the national conversation every day. AT was an exhilerating place to work, fueled by the energy of young producers and bookers fresh out of college and more experienced show runners and talent. We all sensed that we were part of something way ahead of its time and it ended much too soon.

I was asked the other day if I would like to audition for a political talk show. Sign me up! At this critical time in history, I’d love to be part of the interactive conversation that is now possible with new internet tools. I still hear from AT fans who stumble across my blog or web site and ask me if I will be back on the air. Stay tuned.