It has been more than eight years since quirky television personality Keith Olbermann, who played a key role in turning MSNBC into a liberal-leaning powerhouse with his righteously indignant on-camera delivery, angrily quit the cable network in the middle of his four-year, $30 million contract.
Nearly a decade of distance and perspective might be time enough for mellowing. Not for Olbermann, however. Judging by his comments trashing MSNBC anchors Rachel Maddow and Steve Kornacki to BBC presenter Ros Atkins, he’s still nursing grudges.
“The bottom line for me is I contributed to their success and I was correct in my assessment. If I have any animosity toward it, it is that many of them have washed me out of their past in order to make it look like I did not have any influence in getting them to where they are,” Olbermann complained to Atkins during almost 10 hours of conversation that Atkins recorded from early 2018 through October, and the BBC whittled down to a six-part podcast series titled Texting Keith Olbermann.
“Why do you think they did that?” Atkins asked Olbermann about the alleged ingrates.
“Well, that’s another aspect of what makes people successful in this business,” he replied. “If you acknowledge the degree to which you are beholden to others, you are somehow seen as weak. The Rachel Maddow story was that after I left, she was mad at me for leaving because it meant that she could not pass me in the ratings at MSNBC and prove better than her mentor.”
Maddow—whose current viewership at 9 p.m. (often over 3 million) far exceeds Olbermann’s from nine years ago—declined to comment.
However, she has publicly credited Olbermann for her career more than once. “I wouldn’t have this show without Keith directly nudging the network to give me a try,” she said on the air after Olbermann suddenly separated from MSNBC, where his primetime program Countdown had been Maddow’s lead-in.
It was a typically messy Olbermannic departure—much like a dozen other abrupt leave-takings from various broadcast and cable outlets in his colorful career—rife with backbiting and recrimination between the star anchor and his nominal bosses.
Olbermann’s comments about Kornacki, meanwhile, came while Atkins visited his Manhattan apartment one afternoon last July and the two of them were watching cable news programming on multiple screens.
“The Lead with Jake Tapper is Mike Pompeo,” Olbermann narrated. “I haven’t checked but I believe he’s still secretary of state, but I haven’t looked in a few days. Over here is Closing Bell on CNBC. That’s business news people complimenting each other about how much money they’ve made.”
In due course Olbermann fixed on his target: “Here’s Steve Kornacki’s show. He’s one of the least grateful people. I started him in television. He was my backup guy at Current TV. He’d never done any TV and I was sort of bringing him along. And while he was doing that, he was negotiating with MSNBC. And now he has a show there.”
“What kind of gratitude were you expecting?” Atkins wondered.
“Well, let me find out that maybe you’re thinking of not working for me anymore rather than letting me read a press release from MSNBC that explains that you’ve been hired, rather than you’re not coming in to be on the show that night. That’s how he did that.”
Kornacki likewise declined to comment. However, prior to appearing as an unpaid political analyst around a dozen times on Olbermann’s shortlived Current TV version of Countdown in the fall of 2011 and early 2012, Kornacki had cohosted a weekly political show on News 12 New Jersey for three years, and had been an on-air guest hundreds of times dating back at least nine years on local television and cable news, including practically every MSNBC show except—notably—Olbermann’s.
“If there’s one MSNBC person who cannot claim to have discovered Kornacki, it’s him,” said a knowledgeable media person. “If Kornacki ever worked for Olbermann, he owes him back pay, because he never got a cent.”
Olbermann—who, full disclosure, had complained to my bosses about my coverage of him in the New York Daily News more than a decade ago and named me as his “Worst Person in the World” on MSNBC—didn’t respond to a detailed email requesting comment.
These days, however, the 60-year-old Olbermann appears to be doing fine, having recently returned to an on-air berth at ESPN, the sports network he also helped make successful (and left five times before, bookending bridge-burning exits from former vice president Al Gore’s Current TV in 2012 and more recently GQ magazine, for which he made a series of 187 anti-Donald Trump videos titled “The Resistance with Keith Olbermann”).
As Texting Keith Olbermann suggests, he’s incredibly wealthy, owns a fabulous penthouse with breathtaking views of Central Park, and seems ecstatically happy living with several small dogs which he calls “the love of my life.”
The London-based Atkins, the host of the BBC’s 9 p.m. news program Outside Source, said in an interview that he got the idea for the podcast after a year of obsessive phone-texting with Olbermann—multiple times a day, every day, and late into the night—starting when the TV star declared himself a fan on Twitter in January.
“Thank god you’re back,” Olbermann tweeted when Atkins and his family—wife Sara, a lawyer, and their two daughters, Alice, 12, and Esther, 7—returned to London from a Christmas vacation and Atkins resumed doing his show.
“It was a very nice surprise,” the 44-year-old Atkins said upon learning that Olbermann—who is hardly known in the U.K. but was famous to Atkins as an “iconic American broadcaster”—had been subscribing to the BBC World Service as part of his cable package and was a regular Outside Source viewer.
The two exchanged friendly tweets and in short order shared their private cell phone numbers; immediately they began an intense texting relationship that evolved, Atkins believed, into a genuine friendship.
The podcast series also features Sara, Alice and Esther Atkins, who frequently show up to express varying degrees of mild alarm and bemusement at Atkins’ and Olbermann’s compulsive textual encounters, in which Olbermann sends his ESPN ratings numbers, photos of his pooches, photos of the view outside his penthouse window, and even photos of the oysters he’s about to swallow at the seafood restaurant down the block.
Lying in bed with Sara as midnight approaches, and his cell phone keeps flashing with new texts from Keith, Atkins asks if there’s anything she’d like him to ask.
“Is he aware of the time difference between New York and London, and is he aware you’re married to somebody?” she suggests.
The series also has Olbermann musing on subjects ranging from his ability to make piles of money (he boasts that he once demanded $12 million from MSNBC and received $8 million), to his weekly death threats from non-fans, to his apparent incuriosity about others (“It goes without saying, I like talking about myself—my favorite subject”), to his preference for dogs over human beings (“I retreated to a dog-based world because it’s a better one”), to his deep dislike of U.S. cable news and especially CNN (“Between the topics on it and the presentation of it, I stand two chances each minute that I watch of having a coronary, just dying on the spot in a fury”).
Just before his New York trip, when Ros explains to daughter Esther that her father is friends with Olbermann even though they haven’t met, she demands, “Why is he your friend if you’ve never met him?...You don’t actually know whether they’re nice, do you?”
Indeed, in the first episode, Atkins notes during the podcast that Olbermann has a penchant for feuding, and tells him pointedly: “You have a reputation for falling out with people… Maybe I’ll say something that goes down badly and rubs you up the wrong way”—and prompts Olbermann to drop him like a rock.
In the end, predictably, that’s exactly what happened. When the producers and editors had molded Texting Keith Olbermann into a finished podcast series—but well before it was scheduled to be published—the BBC sent it to him as a courtesy.
Olbermann listened to it and, according to people familiar with his reaction, responded with what one described as “cyclone-force rage” and demanded that the BBC never post it. They finally did, a few weeks ago.
Why Olbermann was unhappy with it is unclear: He comes across in the series as extremely smart, entertaining, insightful, and yes, egomaniacal and deeply idiosyncratic.
But suddenly his texts to Atkins stopped.
“I’m sad about it,” Atkins said about the end of a beautiful friendship.