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Alan Keyes is making waves

National | Outfoxing Fox? Just two weeks from concept to airtime, MSNBC's conservative will compete head-to-head with conservative network's liberal

Issue: "Illegal siblings project," Feb. 2, 2002

in Washington-Tally Ho might have been a better name, but MSNBC execs opted for the subtle approach. Though they dubbed their new show Alan Keyes Is Making Sense there's little doubt that the Fox hunt is on-and MSNBC has pulled out the biggest gun it could find. Stung by the ratings success of the right-leaning Fox News Channel, MSNBC on Jan. 21 premiered what may be the most consistently conservative news show ever seen in prime time. Ironically, MSNBC picked up its conservative icon just as Fox moved in the opposite direction, hiring Greta Van Susteren, a leading Clinton defender, to host her own program. Mr. Keyes and Ms. Van Susteren will go head-to-head in the 10 p.m. time slot once her show debuts on Feb. 4. Until then, all the attention-and all the pressure-is on Mr. Keyes. Although he has hosted a radio show for 10 years, television is a relatively new medium for him. Moreover, Making Sense came together in just two weeks, from concept pitch to opening night-leaving little time to rehearse, test, or tinker. Small wonder the tension was high behind the scenes on Jan. 21. In MSNBC's eighth-floor studios overlooking Capitol Hill, the Green Room was crowded with various experts, debaters, producers, family members, and "people just like you." Conspicuously absent was Mr. Keyes's wife of 19 years, Jocelyn. She was getting up early the next day to make sandwiches for the March for Life. Besides, she'd already chewed her fingernails down to the nub. At 9:58, Connie Hair, the show's senior producer, turned up the volume on the TV and flopped into a chair. "Here goes nothing!" she cracked. It was the second segment, "People just like you," that really had the Keyes staff worried. Three average Americans-all non-experts-had been recruited to discuss military tribunals with the host. That in itself was a risky enough proposition. But two of the three had dropped out that day, forcing bookers to scramble for last-minute replacements. Hank Wynn, for instance, had e-mailed the show just that morning to express his interest. Hours later he was packing the family into the car for a three-hour drive from Virginia Beach. "I studied up on military tribunals while I was driving," he joked. Mr. Keyes, a man known for soaring, fiery oratory, proved a surprisingly easygoing facilitator. After changing, Mr. Rogers-style, into a cardigan sweater, he expertly guided the unscripted segment, and his guests were hardly shy about expressing their opinions. "He does this every day at breakfast, talking back to the TV," said Colleen Wynn after her husband cut off a surprised Mr. Keyes. "He finally found someone to listen to him," added Mr. Wynn's 16-year-old daughter, Jessica. As the show once again faded to a commercial break, an e-mail quote appeared onscreen and the Green Room erupted in applause. The writer said he was switching from Fox to MSNBC for the first time, thanks to Mr. Keyes. "We had to get in a dig at Fox," Ms. Hair laughed. Mr. Keyes won't say what kind of ratings he needs to survive, but he'd clearly be happy to see more e-mails like that one. MSNBC has taken a significant risk by handing him an hour of prime time real estate, and network suits have high hopes for the show. Phil Griffin, MSNBC's vice president for programming, swooped down on Mr. Keyes at the champagne wrap party in a cramped kitchen area just off the main newsroom. "I thought it was great, really!" he proclaimed, clapping his new host on both shoulders. "I think [network officials] have a sense of wanting to present folks with something that will attract new people to MSNBC," Mr. Keyes told WORLD moments later in his office. "We talked back and forth, because I had to make sure the show was something that was consistent with the integrity that I have to have. I have to be able to present my views openly, as I always have. But it's working out." It was still too early for any ratings numbers, but the premier was a big success by one measure: E-mails had poured in roughly one every three seconds, more than 1,100 by the hour's end. Would a ratings success provide Mr. Keyes with a launching pad for another presidential bid? With just one show under his belt, he wasn't about to say. "All my efforts continue to be part of an effort to promote approaches to issues that will be good for the country. For a while, engaging in the political arena seemed like the best way to do that. I think the show will be a good vehicle, as well. So I hope we'll have a good, positive impact using the program, and then we'll see where God takes me." For now, Alan Keyes is just enjoying the hunt.

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