NEW YORK — Ed Schultz, a former conservative radio show host whose politics had moved left before he joined MSNBC’s nightly lineup in 2009 and then shifted again when he was hired by RT America, Russia’s state-financed international cable network, died Thursday at his home in Washington. He was 64.
His death was announced by RT America, which did not state a cause. His stepdaughter Megan Espelien said he had heart problems.
Mr. Schultz, a burly former college football quarterback with a booming voice, ranged across the political spectrum during his radio and television career, achieving his highest visibility as a blunt-spoken liberal and champion of blue-collar America as host of “The Ed Show” on MSNBC.
In the 1990s, he had his own conservative radio talk show broadcast regionally from Fargo, N.D. But by 2000, when he announced he was a Democrat, he, and his show, had begun turning to the left, gaining listeners even while others may have dropped him.
Although it had nowhere near the listenership of shows hosted by conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, the Schultz show grew in popularity as he established himself as a sharp critic of president George W. Bush.
In his book “Straight Talk From the Heartland” (2004), Mr. Schultz described the successful, if unusual, arc of his career.
“How did a prairie-dwelling, red-meat-eating, gun-toting former conservative become the hope of liberal radio?” he wrote. “It all started with this annoying habit I have of speaking my mind. Sometimes, when I open my mouth, all hell breaks loose. Other times I feel like a voice in the wilderness and I wonder, ‘Does anybody get this?’ ”
In 2005, he began a nationally syndicated liberal-leaning radio show with funding from a New York nonprofit organization called Democracy Radio. By then he was declaring to The Washington Post that conservative radio hosts were “mean-spirited and intentionally dishonest.”
When MSNBC hired him to host his own show in 2009, he joined an unabashedly liberal lineup that featured Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, among others. He had moments of bombast, from calling vice president Dick Cheney an “enemy of the country” to declaring President Vladimir Putin of Russia, or “Putie,” a hero to Republicans.
He was suspended by MSNBC for a week without pay in 2011 after calling the conservative commentator Laura Ingraham, on his radio show, a “right-wing slut.” (He was responding to her criticism of president Barack Obama for drinking a pint of beer in Dublin instead of flying to the scene of a tornado disaster in Joplin, Mo.)
Mr. Schultz apologized, and Ingraham accepted the apology.
The ratings of “The Ed Show,” which was broadcast on weeknights, never soared, and he moved to weekend duty before being given a weekday slot. His and other underperforming shows were canceled in 2015. In April, he told a National Review podcast that he had been fired for supporting Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primaries.
At MSNBC, Mr. Schultz was known for his embrace of the labor movement at a time when the mainstream media was all but ignoring it, said David Shuster, a former MSNBC host, in a Twitter post Thursday.
“Ed,” he said, “focused on American blue-collar workers most of the MSM had long forgotten.”
Edward Andrew Schultz was born in Norfolk, Va. His father, George, was an aeronautical engineer; his mother, Mary, was a schoolteacher. He played quarterback at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, where he led the NCAA Division II in passing in 1977. After graduating he tried out for teams in the National Football League, including the New York Jets, and the Canadian Football League without success. He then began his career in radio, originally as a sportscaster.
In addition to his stepdaughter Espelien, he leaves his wife, Wendy (Noack) Schultz; his son, David; two other stepdaughters, Greta Guscette and Ingrid Murray; two stepsons, Christian and Joseph Kiedrowski; and 15 grandchildren. His marriage to Maureen Zimmerman ended in divorce.
Several months after losing his job at MSNBC, Mr. Schultz re-emerged as the anchor of an 8 p.m. program, “The News With Ed Schultz,” on RT America.
“I could have retired,” he told The West Fargo Pioneer, a North Dakota newspaper. “That’s not Ed Schultz; I’m not ready to do that. I got a lot of tire left. I have a lot of desire. This gives me a chance to do something that I haven’t had an opportunity to do in my career.”
And, he declared, the network’s Russian backing would not influence him. “Nobody is going to tell Ed Schultz what to say,” he said.
But his new show seemed to reflect a course correction from his MSNBC days. At RT, he adopted a friendlier tone toward Putin and President Trump, whom he had once called a “racist” for questioning whether Obama had been born in the United States.
In 2017, he criticized CNN’s reporting on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
And, in the National Review podcast, he sidestepped his past comments about Putin’s “nasty” human rights record by saying: “I think the United States has a nasty human rights record. I do think that every superpower on the globe has a very poor record on human rights.”
In a statement, Margarita Simonyan, chief editor of RT, recalled how strongly a displeased Mr. Schultz reacted when the Justice Department required RT America to register as a foreign agent.
“Ed set an example for all of us,” she said, “saying: ‘Let them call me what they want. I am going to speak the truth no matter what.’ ”
His last broadcast was on May 31.