Tonight was the big night. Sunday, July 13, 1986. The debut of “The Mitch Berg Show” on KSTP-AM.
At 2AM, Monday morning.
I’d had about five days to get ready to do the show. I had started the week reading voraciously, had taken a folder full of notes – and realized that I was probably overpreparing just a bit. So I backed off – and felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Still, my biggest fear was having two hours of air time to fill – and fifteen minutes of material to fill it with, and having to fall back on playing the music we had stashed on tape around the studio to kill miserable, talkless time until 4AM.
But now it was Sunday, and it was too late to worry about such things. I had some notes typed up (like, Friday), a few topics in my head, and Don Vogel and Geoff Charles as my role models – both of whose preparation seemed to involve hanging around the kitchen yukking it up with the rest of the staff.
There was one minor complication – Don Vogel had gone to Chicago for the weekend, and asked if I could pick him up at the airport and drive him home (to North Saint Paul, about a mile from the station). I met him at the gate at about 10PM…
…after (this is one of those “how things have changed in the past twenty years” stories) leaving a big lockblade knife in the basket by the metal detector – and picking it up on my way back out.
We settled into my car. “So – all set for the big show?” Don asked.
“I think so”, I said, running down a few ideas.
Don nodded. “That’s a lot of material. I remember when I did my first show, I brought in enough stuff for about twenty hours. When you’ve done this a time or two, you’ll calm down and not overprepare so much…”
I dropped him off at his house; it was around 10:30. Only three and a half hours to go until air time. Naturally, I drove to the station.
KSTP at the time was in a rehabbed transmitter building on Highway 61 in Maplewood. I’ve described it elsewhere. The building is still there, although the studios are back in Saint Paul.
But one thing that’s very, very different is the laws governing how stations are staffed. Today, a station will run all night, and sometimes all day as well, with nobody in the studio. In 1986, a station the size of KSTP (50,000 watts) needed to have not only a board operator, but an engineer in the building 24/7. I met them both for pretty much the first time that night.
The board operator was “Griff”, a black guy who looked a little like a beer-gutted “Lamont” (from Sanford and Son) with a short afro. Griff, I had learned, was not happy to see me; the overnight shift was where he got his office work done for his real gig, managing bands. He made phone calls, dubbed demo tapes, stuffed envelopes, drank enough Mountain Dew to set all of northern California swinging into ponds on ropes, and, when needed, play commercials and read the weather. Usually.
The engineer was Ray Brown, a sixtyish guy who’d been with Hubbard since the end of World War II. Literally. Short, with a Van Dyck beard and rumpled hair, Ray was a character.
We’ll get into that later.
I sat down in the newsroom, and began getting my stuff together. I had pages and pages of typewritten notes, news clippings, and bits of drop-in audio dubbed to “cart” (tape cartridges; they looked like eight-track tapes, and worked about the same, but were loaded with anywhere from 20 seconds to five minutes of tape; in the days before computers, it was what we put commercials, news stories, and anything we didn’t want to have to futz with rewinding onto). It was a lot to sort out…
…but by midnight or so, I was done.
And getting nervous.
So I sorted them all out again.
Finally, it was 1AM. Nothing but the sound of Doctor Harvey Ruben on the monitor, and Ray puttering on something back in the relay stack.
I walked into the studio. Griff looked at me, disapprovingly.
“So why are they putting a show on at this time of night?” he quizzed me; I could tell from the tone that he already knew the answer, “they’re idiots”.
“Fairness Doctrine. Too many liberals on the station – they needed someone to balance things out a bit”.
Griff shook his head. “So I’m supposed to screen calls”, he asked, sounding like I’d asked him to pick up cat litter with his mouth.
“Well, yeah. I can do the weather…”
“Gonna do any sports?”
I stood for a second. Sports? I wanted to do a show about politcs, media criticism, pop culture, media bias…basically exactly what I do on my blog today…but sports?
Griff continued – sounding a little excited for the first time since we’d met, “Lotta guys up this late at night want their scores”. He seemed genuinely interested.
I thought; there’s nothing worse than having a board-op/screener who couldn’t give a crap about the job. If this keeps him from keeling over from boredom…”
He continued “maybe at the top and bottom of the hour?”
“Er…How about at the forty?” I asked – put the sportscast after our break at :40 after both hours. “It’ll make the news breaks shorter…”
“Well”, he said, “Let’s see how that goes for starters”.
“For starters?” I thought. “He is going to angle for more airtime!“ “Yeah. For starters. Let’s see how it goes…”. Pick your battles.
I bought my third Mountain Dew of the evening, and went into the studio. 45 minutes early.
And I waited. And waited. And slugged down the Dew, and another…until the top of the hour ABC News came on, signalling “three minutes”.
“…for ABC News, I’m John Skibbenes. And then, Griff tripped the opening theme – the standard “ABC Talk Radio Program” theme, a piece of generic jingle-band filler that opened most of the shows on KSTP, both local and network.
And it was time. I shuffled my papers, and hit the mike button.
“AM1500 The Talk Station“, I said, leaning into the foam-padded mike. “I’m Mitch Berg“.
Truth is, I hardly remember what I talked about; I remember something about the TV movie “Amerika”, a little-remembered movie about a Soviet takeover of the US that the left was howling mad about (and actively trying to censor). I think I still have the tape somewhere, on some ancient, cheap, think-stocked, 20 year old cassette tape somewhere in my basement. I should try to listen to it someday, when I find a cassette deck.
What I do remember is that during my opening monologue – which I’d been rehearsing all week, and in which I set out the whole rationale for having an actual conservative voice on the air, the phone lines lit up.
As in five phone lines, lit up wall to wall, within a minute of my monologue starting.
And they stayed lit for the next two hours. They were third-shifters, drunks, cops, cranks (including one guy who called every single day, on every single show from 5AM to, I guess, 2AM to declare Stanley Hubbard was Satan), insomniacs, night people, musicians loading out after gigs…
…and I had more fun than I’d ever had in two hours in my life. Ever.
Even Griff had fun; the sportscast kept him occupied enough to pay attention to what was going on – no mean feat.
Finally, at 4AM, it was over. The news came on. Jim Bohannon’s show (which aired after the Larry King reruns) followed, echoing through the almost-empty station as I stepped out of the studio and dropped my stuff in my file drawer. I was spent – totally fried – as I walked out the door, grinning ear to ear, and drove home to South Minneapolis.
The sun was coming up as I went to bed; I set my alarm for 9:30, to get back to work in time.
I woke up before the alarm. I was dying to get to work and hear what the boss had to say.
But that was Monday.