Alex Wagner Looks Back on ‘Bonkers’ News Cycle in First 6 Months of MSNBC Show: ‘We’re Figuring Out What Works’

The host and Rachel Maddow’s successor also previews the political “storm front” that is likely ahead

Courtesy of MSNBC

Six months into her gig as host of her own MSNBC show, amid an “absolutely bonkers” news cycle that shows “no signs of letting up,” Alex Wagner says viewers are “getting used” to her after Rachel Maddow passed her the Tuesday through Friday baton and stuck to just Mondays.

“They’re coming to get to know me,” the “Alex Wagner Tonight” host told TheWrap, adding that some viewers knew her from her first iteration as a daytime MSNBC host on “Now With Alex Wagner.” “It’s a lot to ask someone to tune in and spend an hour with a stranger on four nights of the week, and I’ve been really so heartened and enthused by the reaction I’ve gotten from people who didn’t know [me] before.”

While Wagner’s debut had the somewhat daunting task of taking over the bulk of Maddow’s time slot, Wagner has proven herself as a compelling host. “Alex Wagner Tonight” has consistently doubled CNN’s total audience during her hour.

Since the MSNBC series’ launch in August, Wagner’s show has consistently overtaken CNN in total viewers each month, with February marking recent successes as the show beat CNN in the key cable demographic among adults 25-54 with its strongest lead over CNN in both demos.

Wagner, who reiterates her goal to “bring perspective to the stories to make people smarter [and] help them engage with the story and understand it from 360 degrees,” attributes success among viewers in part to her field stories, which she identifies as “an essential part of the DNA of the show.”

The field stories have brought Wagner and her team to a Florida school named New College, where Wagner spoke with students and parents about their organizing against their governor’s “war on woke”; to Wisconsin, where the team met with election workers ahead of the November election to discuss their concerns about election deniers; and to migrants who had been shipped north by southern governors in a “political stunt … with a real human cost.”

“What we’ve tried to do is look at these really hot button political issues, but understand the human element that’s central to all of them and to show our audience what’s happening by actually going to the place itself and talking to the people involved,” she said. “We just got a really, I think, unique and critically important, firsthand perspective on issues that otherwise, to the ordinary viewer, can seem abstract.”

Wagner’s emphasis on reporting on the ground is just one way the former “The Circus” host has experimented with switching up the show’s format, as the “Alex Wagner Tonight” team balances in-depth interviews in a constantly shifting breaking news environment.

“I said, when the show started, that it was going to be an evolution, and I think you’ve seen some of that on air — we’re trying out different stuff — and I think we’re figuring out what works,” Wagner said. “I feel really proud of the way that we’ve moved through the last six months, with an amount of humility, but also ambition and a sense of real responsibility to cover the news in a way that it deserves to be covered.”

As Wagner preps for the looming indictment of former president Donald Trump, which she calls a “large storm front that shows no sign of passing,” she has her eyes on the upcoming “cataclysmic events” she anticipates will shakeup not just American politics, but the nation’s history more broadly.

“The Republican Party is going through a fairly seismic change, and that has profound effects on American democracy,” Wagner said, noting that understanding the effects of the Republican Party’s “change in vision and orientation” is critical.

As the nation undergoes what Wagner identifies as “a pivotal moment in terms of what it means to be an American,” she emphasizes the importance of understanding the ways American society more broadly is changing as a result of the “new brand of GOP conservatism.”

Wagner also notes the current political impasse reflects the changing face of America, as “the tension that we’re seeing right now can be distilled into those who embrace change, and those who seek to stave it off.”

At the premiere of “Alex Wagner Tonight,” Wagner became the only Asian American to host a primetime cable news program. She sees herself as a “change agent” as someone who’s of mixed race, and she welcomes the opportunity to tackle topics of identity.

“That’s sort of essential to my DNA,” she said. “Unpacking the questions of American identity are critical, not just because those are issues I grappled with, but because that’s something that everyone is grappling with to a certain degree in this changing America.”

To this point, Wagner’s career has been nothing if not wide-ranging, seeing her serve as a contributor to The Atlantic, a co-host of “CBS This Morning” and editor in chief for music magazine Fader. The latter had her covering everything from violet funk to trap music to Chicago house to folk rock, and she even hinted at hosting less traditional guests outside of politics on her show.

“In the coming months, you’ll see a few more folks who aren’t necessarily rooted in the world of policy and politics and government, but are coming from … worlds outside of politics, whether that’s arts, or entertainment, or literature,” Wagner said, teasing that viewers will “see a slightly broader array of people on the show when it makes sense.”

While Wagner admits that it’s hard to make a case for a musician to come on the show to discuss Trump’s latest move, she admits a case could be made.

“I would say artists are often some of the most politically savvy people in society,” Wagner said. “They are many ways interlocutors for the rest of society; they help us understand how to think about things that are dramatic and tumultuous.”