Rutabaga Bob

I’m bummed to hear that T.D. “Tommy” Mischke has gotten whacked at KSTP-AM.

I’m not, of course, surprised.  More on that below.

David Brauer:

I called Mischke Saturday morning and he was gracious, diplomatic and cautious. “I want to be able to talk about it, but I need a little time before I can,” he said.

No doubt.  Mischke’s career with Hubbard has been a blessing for all of us who’ve loved his show over the years.  But in this day and age it was also a pretty unlikely gift, I think, to Mischke himself.  I have a hunch (an unqualified one, but I’m confident in it) that he knows it.

Brauer gets this part wrong, though.

He began as Don Vogel’s sidekick in 1992…

 Nope.  He started in 1986.  At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking by it.

———-

Back when I was screening calls for Don Vogel, we had a regular caller – “The Phantom Caller“.  He’d call in and give a different pseudonym, sometimes a couple of times a week, sometimes with a little gap in between.  I quickly figured out his voice; I’d cue Don that I thought the “Phantom Caller” was on the line; Don would go to him quickly; he was a huge fan.  Mischke may have known how many times he left Don in stitches and gasping with laughter on the air; he probably didn’t know how many times he incapacitated all of us in the control room as well.

Tom had some ingenious moments; I have a cassette of some of the great Phantom Caller bits from Vogel’s first go-around at KSTP, and it’s still hilarious stuff, each of them a finely-honed little gem of writing delivered with the kind of voices that Mischke has made famous for the past decade and a half.  The best moment of all?  One blustery, rainy fall day, we took the Vogel show on the road, to a display window in the old “Powers” store in downtown Minneapolis (it’s long gone, of course; it was on one of the blocks where Gaviidae Common sits today, if memory serves).  As I stood outside with a microphone looking for comments from the assembled multitude (which was gratifyingly large for that era of KSTP shows), a guy came dashing up Sixth Street in a yellow unitard with a red cape and a mask.  He plunged into the center of the crowd, saying not a word, but handing out little one-page, handwritten humorous blurbettes – each completely unique.  He handed ‘em out until he ran out – maybe twenty seconds – and then ran off to a car that waited with (as I recall) a getaway driver down the street.  We spent the next segment having people read their own personalized Phantom Caller (and, I guess, Handbiller) bits live on the air. 

It was not long after this that I actually met “The Phantom Caller”.  Back during the days of the “Fairness Doctrine”, talk radio was a financial gulag.  The listeners were older and not all that well-off; the audiences at KSTP were a fraction of what they’d be a few short years later after Limbaugh resuscitated the format.  As a result, I – like a lot of entry-level talk station employees – freelanced like a madman to make ends meet.  One of my many side gigs involved doing freelance writing for a slew of Saint Paul neighborhood papers (which, at that time, was a steadier source of income than trying to freelance for the dailies – if not quite as “glamorous”).  Two of them were “The Highland Villager” and “The Grand Avenue Gazette” – both edited by one Mike Mischke.

One day I drove down to their offices in Highland to turn in a story before I drove out to the station.  Mike looked my copy over as we traded some small talk about the Vogel show – and then looked up. 

“By the way, I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell you this, but my brother Tommy is the Phantom Caller”. 

It all clicked. 

I did, as a matter of fact, sit on that factoid until the last show of Don’s first hitch at KSTP, back in January of 1987. 

I listened to Mischke for much of his career at KSTP, although I regrettably couldn’t listen much after he moved to days, a few years ago. 

Tom’s more than a host, of course; he’s also a neighbor.  He coached my (our, actually) kids’ softball team a few years back; I run into him periodically at the neighborhood coffee shop or the grocery store.  He actually remembers me, which is kind of a kick, and not really surprising.

———-

Mischke’s show was a genuine original; all the right people liked him (Garrison Keillor had him on Prairie Home Companion as a musical guest a few years back – Tom is, of course, a very talented pianist and harmonical player).  But like a lot of genuine originals in any art form (and Mischke’s radio was a sort of art form – and I say this while stressing that radio as a whole is a craft), the art depended on having a patron to shield the artist from the spikes and deadfalls of the open market.

That someone, so rumor always had it, was Ginny Morris, one of the granddaughters of Stanley Hubbard the Elder, the founder of Hubbard Broadcasting (and one of the great pioneers of American broadcasting in his own right) and the person who really pulls the strings on the radio side at Hubbard.  Ms. Morris – so the rumors in the industry had it, at least when I was paying attention to them – kept Mischke on the payroll, and on the air, for many long years when there was no explicit market demand for a free-form, eccentric stream-of-consciousness show like his.  As talk radio morphed into what it is today – a venue for partisan anger, humor and information – Mischke was an outlier who, I think it’s fair to say, could only exist in the market with the aid of someone who really really wanted him to exist.

And like anyone with a cult following, his cult can’t imagine life without him.  David Brauer – himself a former KSTP-AM morning guy and someone for whom the radio market could not find a place – does what many of Mischke’s biggest (or at least most-prominent) fans do; sneer down their rhetorically-patrician noses at the hoi-polloi that just didn’t get it:

Expect a torrent of outrage; for 17 years, Mischke has been a genuine, funny, decent presence in a commercial-radio landscape filled with haters and bloviators.

If a conservative talk show host orders a pizza in the woods and David Brauer or Garrison Keillor or Nick Coleman isn’t there to hear it, is he still hateful?

Seriously – do Mischke’s more exceptionalistic fans seriously believe that Tom was a higher life form that suffered the fools with whom he was forced (by some unthinking, lumpen fate) to associate out of the goodness of his own sainted heart?

No.  Rush Limbaugh and Jason Lewis and Sean Hannity and Dr. Laura Schlesinger and all of the other “haters and bloviators” during the station’s golden age that, as it happens, coincided with Mischke’s career as a headliner, gave KSTP-AM the opportunity to give Mischke his opportunity.  “Hate and bloviation” (AKA “opinion that dissents from Garrison Keillor and David Brauer and Steve Perry and the rest of the Twin Cities’ closely-held media elite) allowed KSTP to run a show like Mischke’s – a show that earned the station a lot of high-end mindshare but never (so the rumor mill has it) got the numbers that would have allowed it to survive purely on the merits of its own market share.

Limbaugh and Jason Lewis carried Mischke – not the other way around.

In the past few years, KSTP-AM embarked (this is my opinion, but I’ll stand by it) on a suicide dive, following the opinions of some pretty dubious consultants who never much liked the conservative talk phenomenon; the shows that pulled KSTP-AM out of palookaville fifteen and twenty years ago, Limbaugh and Jason Lewis (along with Joe Soucheray, who still delivers the numbers although he’s been doing essentially the same show every day since Bob Dole was a candidate, not a pitchman) got away without much overt gnashing and wailing on KSTP’s part.  That, combined with the drastic drop in ad revenue tied to the economic slowdown, is making life pretty dismal (according to the rumor mill as well as the news of layoffs at Channel Five) over at Hubbard.

So what’s next for Tom?  Tom’s always audibly chafed at life in corporate America, even the indulgent, “Lord of the Flies” version of it that Hubbard seemed to have provided him for the past sixteen years; he’s always been able to not only string together a living, but do it with style. 

It’s happening all over the business.  All of radio is hitting an epic revenue trough.  There is almost no part of radio that isn’t being gutted by the combined onslaught of the IPod, satellite radio, the proliferation of media.

Except conservative talk, of course. 

For better or worse. 

———-

Me?  I hope his goodwill with Garrison Keillor pays off for him.  I think he’d be an excellent addition to some part of Keillor’s little empire (although Tom might find Keillor a much less understanding or tolerable boss than Ginny Morris); I think having TD alongside Tim Russell and Sue Scott would be genius.

[Conflict of interest note; Konrad hired me at KSTP in the mid-'90s; he was a very supportive boss. Tommy was a very supportive colleague.]

[Conflict of interest note of my own:  I also used to work with Konrad, at KDWB in the early '90s.  In 1991, KSTP-AM interviewed for a new program director; Steve and I were the final two.  Steve got the job, partly because he's a very talented guy who deserved a job, and partly because the consultant who was being paid to bend Ginny Morris' ear was convinced that political talk was dead, and that Limbaugh was a success not because he was conservative, but because he was breezy and irreverent.  In his world, Jason Lewis and Sean Hannity and, for that matter, the Northern Alliance had no future - but Turi Rider was a creative genius.  I disagreed; Steve got the job.  Would KSTP-AM be better-off today had I gotten the gig?  Maybe, maybe not.

But at my third interview, whilst discussing the point with the consultant who, it was clear, was going to make the call, and feeling like I was losing the point, I figured I’d toss out a favor to an old friend.

“If you like funny radio…have you ever heard of a guy named Don Vogel?  I hear he just got fired in Milwaukee”. 

“I think I have is tape somewhere”, said the consultant.  “I haven’t really listened to it”. 

“Give it a listen”, I said. 

It wasn’t long after that that Vogel came back to KSTP-AM (along with not a few of the products from a number of my answers to the question “what would you do if you were the program director”).  And then they hired Mischke, first as the producer and then his sidekick.

(Don on left, Tom on right, and the listener who owns the photo in the middle).

Make what you will of it.  Just saying.

Anyway – best of luck, Tom.

15 thoughts on “Rutabaga Bob

  1. Tom’s an incredibly talented person. I have no doubt he will be able to utilize what is a very expansive imagination to develop some new niche.
    As I recall that he had a serious (and well publicized) problem with depression at one point. It’s my hope that monster doesn’t re emerge.

    The world needs people that can make us laugh, and not in the way Nick Colman does.

  2. The switch to the afternoons doomed TD…well, that and a mild case of chronic Democratia that had bloomed into an acute, stage 4 during the assention of The One.

    Brauer is hinting that Mischke has a fish on the hook already; what are the odds that he’ll show up on Airhead ScAmerica?

  3. *Great* post, Mitch. Great.

    I got the same feeling about Mischke’s fans (of which I am the enthusiastic kind)… those saying all of their “hatey, hate filled hate from the hate wing of the haters in the hatery”.

    Don’t listen to conservative radio if you like, but let’s not pretend that it’s hate.

    These fans are the same whiners who believe Prager is mean and nasty and that Souch only talks about politics.

    I love Tommy’s show… he’s truly a radio genius. He’s one of only a few pitchmen who I really enjoy listening to his ads. (His live ads were usually enjoyable.)

    He’s right up there with Steve Cannon.
    Seriously.

    If only Mischke’s “Silent Night” broadcast was available somewhere. Damn!

  4. I have no doubt he will be able to utilize what is a very expansive imagination to develop some new niche.

    In suggestion, two words:

    Stand Up.

  5. Was he the one that would sing things…just sort of making it up as he went along? I only occasionally get to hear KSTP (as we’re driving to or fro at night up here or during the daytime when in the Cities. I liked him a lot.

  6. TD worked better in the evenings. The “free flow” doesn’t work well when you’re battling traffic that doesn’t flow free.

  7. As much as this was something I’ve been expecting for years, it still sucks. Mischke is SUCH a talent… but he’s perfecting a dying art form. It’s a tragedy in a way.

    At the risk of pissing off most of Mitch’s readers, Kellior is also an amazing radio talent we’ll not see the equal of ever again. But at least he’s done a far better job positioning his national brand. Kellior is now a “brand” like Mischke should be. And I’m wishing he was now, so one station couldn’t silence him when their pocketbook pinched.

  8. At the risk of pissing off most of Mitch’s readers, Kellior is also an amazing radio talent we’ll not see the equal of ever again.

    Keillor is an extraordinary radio talent. He’s also a fine novelist. There’s no disputing that. As a political columnist, he’s fifth-rate and boring as hell.

    And always be wary of saying “we’ll not see the equal of ever again” about anyone.

  9. “Kellior is also an amazing radio talent” you won’t get much argument about that here, (at least not from me). It’s his newspaper columns that suck.

  10. I’ve heard that Mischke put in plenty of show prep… in fact, that’s probably the major reason why everyone thinks he made it up on the spot. He knew when he could go wild on a call or an interview.

    He thought he had plenty of bad shows… but we, the audience, usually had a great time.

  11. That was a funny paradox about Mischke; I heard from some of his colleagues that he probably put more time in on show prep than just about anyone in the business.

  12. Keillor is guilty of the same crime as Mischke…that of interjecting vehement polemics into what is advertised to be entertainment.

    I was a huge PHC fan, but of late I don’t listen because Keillor cannot help but hock a rhetorical loogey or two at Republicans in general and Bush in particular at every opportunity.

    Just do the damn show and contain the politics to columns and blogs that we can ignore!

  13. There are two times when you want to call up your radio host and tell him how to do his job:

    1) Any time Mischke ventures into political topics and doesn’t try to be funny, and
    2) Any time Jason Lewis ventures into comedy

    …but even then, at least it sounds like Lewis knows his jokes are groaners.

    Lileks, obviously, has a bit on T.D. Mischke over at that Buzz thing:
    http://buzz.mn/?q=node/5582

  14. “Mischke may have known how many times he left Don in stitches and gasping with laughter on the air; he probably didn’t know how many times he incapacitated all of us in the control room as well.”

    My wife and I would be on our commute home from work and many a time we’d be laughing so hard it was difficult to keep the car on the road during one of those skits. I’ll never forget the “round mound of sound”, darn I miss him. Tom was/is something special as well. I’m thinking if anybody can he will not only survive but prosper. Wishing him good luck and best fortunes!

  15. The first time I heard Mischke, he was interviewing an author of a then new book on the Edmond Fitzgerald. Every question he asked was sang to the tune of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald. The author seemed to be totally unaware of what was going on, adding even more to the comedy.

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