I finally got around to reading David Brauer’s two part interview with Tom Mischke (parts one and two), about his exit from KSTP and his thoughts on the future of the business.
More on that in a bit.
I remember walking into KSTP the night I filled in for Bob Davis, on January 23, 2003. It was the first time I’d set foot in a radio station in ten years; the first time I’d done a talk show in almost sixteen.
I felt a little bit like Rip Van Winkel. When I’d left radio, shows were recorded on cassettes; audio editing and production work was done on twelve-inch reel to reel tapes; commercials, songs and dropins came on “Carts” (which looked and worked like eight-track tapes, for those of you old enough to remember them). At my last previous radio “job” – as a volunteer news guy at KFAI – they’d just installed a computer to download the AP wire and allow a little rudimentary editing.
At KSTP (and AM1280, which followed about a year later), everything was on computer; commercials, dropins (on a slick touch-screen array), commands to switch between recorded, live and satellite programming, even the recorded programs themselves.
And that was the least of it. As I’ve noted many times in the past, when I left KSTP-AM, it was the poor cousin of the Hubbard empire; Hubbard Broadcasting had been trying to sell KSTP-AM for years, with no luck – because rumors had it that AM was dead, and the band was going to get decommissioned eventually. By 2003, that was in the past; KSTP-AM was financially carrying Channel 5, Channel 45, KS95, Estrogen 107 and the rest of the Hubbard operation.
A number of things hadn’t changed, though.
- When radio management wants you gone? You’re gone.
- If you give Hubbard Broadcasting a silk purse, they’ll not only find a way to make a sow’s ear out of it, but in such a way as to make the observer wonder if sows can be on meth.
Mischke on exactly why Hubbard told him they’d gassed his show:
On the day I was fired, I was handed a transcript of a conversation I had with my producer two weeks earlier. I remembered the conversation. I had been curious to know where the jingle for [Hubbard-owned] Channel 45 had come from. It’s the little sing-song way they say “45.”
I wanted to know who came up with it, how many other ways they thought to sing it, what talent they hired to deliver the jingle and how many different takes there were. I suppose I just wanted to learn the backstory behind a modern corporate jingle.
I asked my producer to call them and ask them, knowing full well these are fellow Hubbard employees. My producer refused. I think he was just tired of me having him do various things while he was busy trying to answer the phone.
So I picked up the phone and called them myself, on the air. I phoned downstairs, a receptionist answered, and I asked to speak to someone at Channel 45. She said, “Just a minute” and put me on hold. I then put the entire call on hold and asked my producer if he’d now please speak to them off the air so as to get a sense of where that jingle came from.
That’s what I was fired for. Making that call to the receptionist without getting her permission.
[David Brauer]: Isn’t such a call an FCC violation?
A: They told me it was indeed an FCC violation.
Back in 1986, Don Vogel caught wind that the afternoon guy at the old WLOL-FM, a chucklehead named “Doctor Dave”, was lifting a bit of Vogel’s (a takeoff on radio tele-shrink Dr. Harvey Ruben) on WLOL’s wacky afternoon zoo. He told me to get “Dr. Dave” on the air. Via a contact or two, producer Dave Elvin had their studio line number handy. I called “Dr. Dave”, and Don put him on the air, live. Of course, being a newbie to talk radio, I didn’t know there’d be a problem; Don, a fifteen year vet of Chicago talk, didn’t know either.
There was. There is an FCC regulation whose number I could, until recently, recite from memory, saying that radio stations can not put someone on the air without them having a realistic expectation of knowing they are being put on the air. You have to tell people they’re going to be on the air, we were told, by an irate station counsel who’d just gotten an irate phone call from an irate general manager at WLOL. We spent the next day wondering if we were going to get fired. Our own GM, Scott Meier, saved the day, basically saying that we’d forget their plagiarism if they’d forget our stunt. It blew over.
You’re thinking “not only does every half-assed FM morning show in the world do ambush calls for yuks, but Mischke’s made an art form of those kinds of calls”. And you’d be right. Heck – we had a long-running bit on the Vogel show, “Random Call”, where we’d pick an area code and dial a random number, often to hilarious results (like Christmas Eve, 1985, where we got a hold of the Nome, Alaska Police Department squad room, with predictably deadpan-hilarious results).
And beyond that? Back in Mischke’s early years on evenings – one of the first times I listened to him, in the early nineties – I heard him struggling to get someone on the air, live and uninformed. I called the studio; my old friend and colleague Joe Hansen - aka “The Jackal”, at that point – answered, and I told him about my near-miss on Vogel. They waved off on the bit – that time. Naturally, Mischke followed through on the bit the next umpteen jillion times.
Do you think this was news to KSTP-AM’s program director, Steve Konrad, or to his various levels of management?
If so, I have a tape from Willie Clark that I’d like to try to sell you.
If you can say one thing for Mischke, it’s that he’s a comedic genius with a flair for using radio, with all of its foibles and limitations and traditions, as a tool in his comic toolbox.
If you can say one more thing for him, it’s that he’s always seemed to keep radio, with all of its foibles and limitations and corrosive dysfunction, in its place.
Mischke said, and believes, all sorts of things that separate him from the mainstream (i.e. successful) parts of talk radio, but make it safe for the likes of Garrison Keillor to be an “out” fan. Still, it’s hard to work in commercial radio (outside of Air America) and not understand what actually works out there these days:
I watched many people attempt radio shows over the years. I saw talk hosts come and go. In all my years at KSTP, I saw only three shows succeed — truly succeed. The only three programs to ever generate any kind of decent ratings at all were Rush Limbaugh, Jason Lewis and Joe Soucheray. That’s it.The rest of us never offered anything in the way of mass appeal. So any talk host, outside of those three, should walk away, following a firing, feeling lucky to have been given a shot.
Three hosts; a populist conservative, an intellectual conservative, and a culturally-conservative-to-the-point-of-reactionary curmudgeon.
Mischke clearly understands something that KSTP-AM’s management does not.
[Brauer]: Where do you think KSTP is headed? The talk around town is about terrible numbers, save for Joe, and a pricey Twins contract that might not pay off, since it was signed during good times but now must be sold to advertisers during bad times. This is a strange time in radio and there’s something to say here.
A: Radio, as we’ve known it in this country, is dying. I don’t envy anyone trying to make the transition to the next stage in media. The Twins gamble has not paid off for KSTP. It has not affected ratings.
That has been very disappointing. It was a coup to steal them from ‘CCO, but oh, the cost.
You add that to the fact that Soucheray is the only talk host over there driving home each day feeling good about his ratings and you have big worries. Tack on the dismal economy with its bleak advertising picture and you have more than just worries.
But after all that – especially after my “Rip Van Winkle” riff at the beginning of this long post – we get to the interesting part; the future of talk radio.
It’s overly obvious to say that “things have changed since Mischke and I got into the business”. The interesting part is, “where are those things going?”
I was pondering that as Ed and I did the NARN2 show last Saturday; while talk radio was years ahead of the traditional dead-tree and showbiz-broadcast media in incorporating interactivity – phone callers with their own points to add – it was all still very hierarchic. Callers passed through a screener to get to the host, who was the center of attention. And that’s changing, I thought, as Ed and I worked the webcam, kept up with the chatroom and the Twitter thread and the incoming email and, by the way, did a broadcast show. The audience’s relationship with a talk show host is changing in an analogous way to the changes the Blog brought to the reader’s relationship to the newspaper; the host isn’t necessarily in charge of the conversation by sole virtue of having the microphone.
It’s not bad – indeed, being a blogger, I’d be dumb to do anything but embrace the change. But it is different.
I think every radio station in town has to pray to God they have a visionary on their staff. This is the time for change and innovation. A dramatic shift needs to occur.
I hope to end up somewhere where this idea is fully grasped, where the ideas move to the Internet, websites, video-blogging, music, live streaming. I think what is about to rise out of the ashes of the old radio model is far more exciting and interesting than what has come before. Some station in this town is going to be the first to fully exploit this. To those folks go the spoils.
The future is out there. I sincerely hope – and believe – that Mischke is a part of it.