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The business of Tom Barnard

Illustration by Thilo Rothacker
Tom Barnard

We know what you think of Tom Barnard. Trust us, we know.

There are hardened perspectives on Barnard’s 43-year run in local radio. But his polarizing persona blinds audiences to a larger reality, which is that Barnard is an adroit, engaged businessman who has built a network of shrewd investments outside media, while also working to reinvent his brand for a new media era. There’s very little Barnard touches that doesn’t turn golden.

That’s not to say there haven’t been losses—largely his once-lucrative voiceover business and an everyman popularity that split down the middle when he became identified with right-wing ideological causes.

The sting of that turned Barnard privately introspective and left him reluctant to talk to the press, making his business universe a side of Barnard few people know, but one the press-shy personality agreed to open up about as he embarks on a make-or-break year for his Tom Barnard podcast.

Home base for Barnard’s network of businesses is a suite of offices in the North Loop’s historic Itasca warehouse. The space is framed in walls of glass, ancient wood beams and columns, and man-cave luxuries like deep leather couches, a stocked bar and several big-screen TVs.

It is the HQ for the real estate and land development concern that Barnard funds, and, hidden away in a windowless room, the studio—built and soundproofed to broadcast standards—for his Tom Barnard podcast. Five afternoons a week, Barnard and his cast of family and regulars deliver a two-hour broadcast designed to perhaps one day supplant his radio show.

It’s an ambitious venture for the 62-year-old radio veteran and Golden Valley resident, who no longer needs to work, much less rethink a medium. “But I learned there was only so much golf I could play,” says Barnard.

“And I’ll be honest with you, I like owning stuff.”

The King must change

To those who don’t follow Barnard, it may not be apparent how extraordinary, even historic, his achievements in radio are. “MSP is a top 20 marketplace,” explains Mark Steinmetz, a 36-year radio veteran now based in Phoenix, who ran KQRS until 2001. “Since the advent of the KQ Morning Show, no radio show has enjoyed the kind of success Tom enjoyed and enjoys at KQ. Nobody came close. Tom beat his closest [top 20] competitor by a factor of two to three.”

“Tom is an excellent broadcaster,” says his new business partner, Don Shelby. “He has a great sense of timing, he’s well informed, a good interviewer. And he’s endlessly entertaining.”

The KQ Morning Show has been very good to Barnard, earning him millions since 1986, but several factors in his life and business universe persuaded him it was time to diversify.

“Look, KQRS isn’t a job you just walk away from,” says Barnard. “It’s still very strong, but I’m done at 10 a.m., and at the end of the day, I’m still working for someone else.”

Retirement was not an option. “He likes to work,” says his wife and podcast co-host, Kathryn Brandt, who is also a real estate agent. “He’s not happy with a lot of time on his hands.”

Barnard’s nephew Sean, a radio veteran who ran digital operations for Hubbard Radio and then Citadel Broadcasting in the Twin Cities, came to Tom in 2011 with an idea. “He asked me if I was really going to want to get up at 4 a.m. for the remainder of my life,” Barnard recalls. The answer was no.

Sean proposed that Tom create a podcast, a venture he could own, and more notably, control—whom he shares the air with and how each hour is programmed; those are choices he doesn’t make at KQRS. There would also not be the constraining formatics and heavy commercial load of AM radio.

Hot buttons, cold feelings

There are years when Barnard questioned why he should stay in the business. Though morning radio has done right by Barnard, it has complicated his personal and business life in ways he hadn’t anticipated. Ways that cost him income, friends and community esteem. Most of it is rooted in his decision, after 9/11, to move his radio show into the realm of politics.

“It’s probably my biggest regret,” he says. “It was a terrible mistake. Did anyone know Johnny Carson’s politics?”

The way Barnard recalls it, in the passionate times after the 9/11 attacks, as it became clear to colleagues that Tom had strong feelings about the geopolitical situation, he was encouraged to air those feelings on his show. He recalls longtime program director Dave Hamilton and producer Bryce Crousore pushing him to take the show ideological. The request was not inconsistent with Barnard’s history.

“Tom was brutally honest,” says Steinmetz. “He would take on the establishment, the rich and powerful, he gave a backdoor look into the seamier sides of the music and radio industries.”

This time, Barnard says, he was reluctant, but acceded to the requests. “I know it’s hard for some people to believe,” he says, “but there’s lots of things I’ve done on KQ that I didn’t want to do. I’m thinking about the 150 jobs in that building. If I’m wrong and they lose jobs because I won’t take [management’s] way, that’s something I couldn’t live with.”

Though bending to his bosses is inconsistent with the blunt Barnard’s public persona, his longtime confidant and podcast co-host Don Shelby finds it credible. “Tom is a broadcaster—ratings mean a lot, popularity means a lot,” Shelby explains. “He listened to the advice because he saw the rise of Limbaugh and saw the writing on the wall.” Barnard was too good at it.

“Tom is fearless in saying very frank things on the radio,” says Shelby. “It’s the source of his success, but it also gets him into trouble.”

The ratings went up, but at a cost. The notoriety cost Barnard his broad popularity and his lucrative voiceover business. “The things I said and stands I took went on Wikipedia, they went national. Advertisers don’t want to be associated with anything controversial. No one wanted to work with me,” Barnard reveals.

It also cost Barnard his reputation as a moderate—which is how he thinks of himself. “I became the local left’s bad guy; still am.” (Barnard says KQRS received half a million faxes calling for his head after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone. Barnard had suggested Wellstone “drop dead” after Wellstone used Barnard to make political points in a debate over immigration and assimilation. The senator died in a plane crash 39 days later.) It turned a guy who already was inclined to reclusiveness inward, and made him more protective of privacy and family.

The Voice, silenced

Tom Barnard’s most distinctive asset has long been his gravelly baritone. And long before he was a morning-drive powerhouse, he was a national presence in commercial voiceover work. (He was the voice of KSTP-TV until the end of last year.) It was a glamorous vocation that came to a crashing halt.

“God, it was a fun business,” Barnard recalls. “You would bounce from studio to studio in an eight-hour day. There were about 25 of us nationally. You could earn a couple mil a year in voice work.” The peak was 1977 to 1986. “Some days I would do KQ, then fly to Chicago for the day for voiceover work.”

Work began to wane in the late 1990s. “It’s not really a profession anymore,” Barnard says. “Movie stars decided voiceover work was no longer beneath them. I’d be auditioning against Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Paul Newman.” Hackman took Barnard’s gig with United Airlines, Ed Harris took Home Depot.

What opportunities remained were snuffed out as Barnard became known for political outbursts. “No one wanted to work with me then,” he says. “I lost Home Depot over that.”

His last client was KSTP. “In the ’80s a TV station would pay $40,000 to $50,000 a year for announcing work,” Barnard says. “Now it’s like $5,000.”

An online rebirth

Fast-forward a decade, and the idea of starting something from scratch appealed to Tom, but not in quite the way Sean Barnard expected.

“The basic truth is I decided to do the podcast because my kids graduated from college and couldn’t find jobs,” Tom explains. “We were trying to find a way to employ these kids,” confirms Brandt, of daughter Alex, 25, and son Andy, 27.

Barnard podcast by the numbers

$250K in startup costs

2013 revenue: $250K; 2014 estimate: $750K; peak future estimate: $2m

10% stream the podcast live

10,000–12,000 downloads per day

Income averages $100,000 to $200,000

62% of audience is local

Largest age cohort: 35-54

65% of listeners are male

The theory was that a podcast could be hosted by the entire Barnard family, creating a legacy that lives on after Tom retires. “I love working with my family,” Barnard says. “My mom died and my kids moved out in a five-month period. I was depressed. I still hate it.

“So I told ’em, ‘You both need a job that makes some money. The economy sucks. What are you going to do, make 15 grand a year at Target?’ And it makes it possible for me to see them every day,” Barnard adds. The Tom Barnard podcast was born.

In 2012 Barnard offered Cumulus Broadcasting, KQRS Radio’s current owner, a partnership in the podcast he was planning. Cumulus at the time had no interest in the digital side of radio, and had cut loose Sean Barnard, who had been running its digital operations at the time. But Cumulus did give Barnard carte blanche for his venture.

The Tom Barnard podcast hit the air that August, streaming over the Internet and archived at tombarnardpodcast.com. It has morphed from its debut, most dramatically at the beginning of this year.

The show debuted as a free-form conversation between Tom and family and a guest or two, all sitting around a conference table ringed with microphones. It is evolving into two distinctly programmed hours with a more defined structure and limited guest presence. In 2013 Barnard brought on ex-WCCO TV and Radio personality Don Shelby as co-host, which has given the show a topical spark but has also diminished the amount of air time available for family.

“Tom is great at finding other talented people to surround himself with,” says Mark Steinmetz. “And they have the effect of bringing out the best in him.”

The podcast is not simply meant to be a workfare program for the Barnard kids and a retired TV anchor, but rather is a fresh concept, blazing a local trail in digital content and marketing.

Barnard believes he can maintain both KQRS and the podcast indefinitely; he no longer talks of leaving KQ, though insiders talk as though the podcast represents a soft landing if at some point Barnard should find AM drive radio too frustrating.

Weak signal

Radio today is a medium in transition. Its music stations face competition from digital downloads and smartphones, while its talk/personality formats struggle under a new audience ratings system that has slashed estimates of listenership nationwide.

Barnard began the KQ morning show in 1986, and says at its peak around 2000, it was generating $25 million to $28 million in revenue for KQRS. “When I went to work for KQ it had been sold for $10.5 million to Capital Cities (ABC),” he says. “It was worth $400 million 10 years later.” (Steinmetz’s recollection is closer to $300 million.)

Most of the credit for that should go to Barnard, but he deflects much of it: “I will always be grateful to [retired KQRS program director] Dave [Hamilton],” Barnard says. “He was the only one who believed I could pull the morning show off.”

Then-general manager Steinmetz recalls that, at its peak, Barnard and crew were attracting a 25 percent share of adults 25 to 54, the prime buying demographic. “We started selling ads for Tom at $80 a minute,” Steinmetz says, “and rates kept doubling. At its highest, they were going for $2,500 a minute.”

“People forget,” says Shelby, “how much audiences were hungering for something authentic from radio back then. Tom didn’t invent a personality for himself. He is who he says he is, and that is the source of his connection with listeners.”

That was then. KQRS still leads in morning drive among adults 35 to 54, but it and WCCO Radio have most keenly felt the audience erosion of the last decade, says Val O’Sullivan, media investment supervisor for Campbell Mithun’s Compass Point Media. She says morning drive has lost roughly 20 percent of its measurable audience since the peak, some due to changing listener habits, some due to the change in ratings technology (diaries to electronic meters).

“There is also less revenue available per ratings point,” notes Steinmetz. “All the traditional media are fighting [just] to keep revenues flat, and that’s factoring in a growing stream of online revenues. [Radio is] about 20 percent off our peak in 2000, which doesn’t seem bad, but year after year without growth is very tough on businesses,” especially ones that are often publicly held and heavily leveraged.

Barnard says the morning show generates 40 percent less revenue than in the glory years. “Tom always commanded a premium,” says a source at one of his competitors. “Not so much today. Today the ad agencies tell us what they are going to pay and we take it.”

Barnard says he accepted two 50 percent pay cuts in recent contracts to adjust to the new revenue reality. “I took a huge cut so people didn’t lose their jobs,” he notes, “so now [management] pretty much leaves me alone [on matters of program content].”

Still, media buyer O’Sullivan describes the KQ Morning Show as “influential” and “vital.” “Our radio budgets are increasing,” she says. “Our perspective is radio is vibrant.” Podcast general manager Sean Barnard believes radio will suffer relative to digital going forward: “First, the audience is not precisely measurable like digital [is]. There is discontent among parts of the industry over the reliability of audience data,” he says. “Second, radio has spent most of the last decade cutting costs and finding ways to reduce the amount of talent they employ. So radio has no farm system for talent anymore. It is content-starved. It’s not creating guys like Tom anymore.”

Investment strategy: bread and a roof

The wealth that voiceover and radio brought Barnard made him a target of any number of people looking to put his wealth to work. His money may be in great demand, but he doesn’t exactly relish the role.

“It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in, to be the money guy,” he says. “My net worth is pretty high, but my liquidity is not great. I mostly am doing it for my kids.”

In 2006 Tom met Ryan Burnet on the golf course. They became friends and Barnard became an investor in several of Burnet’s restaurants— the Barrio group of tequila bars and the high-style Italian restaurant Bar La Grassa in Minneapolis’s North Loop. “Tom trusted me,” says Burnet, “and we built a rapport.” Burnet accepts the premise that restaurants “are not an investment most financial advisors would recommend,” but Barnard says “things have worked out very well. I’ve been lucky.”

Restaurant investors are known for meddling and holding court in “their” joints, but Burnet says Barnard is the “ideal investor: respectful, low key, gracious.”

Barnard was dead-set against becoming an egotistical owner. “There are so many people who think they know how to do radio,” he says, “that I never would tell anything to a professional restaurateur.”

Barnard attributes his interest in restaurants not to status or recognition (few people even are aware of his associations with the local hot spots), but to something more primal: “My mom was a waitress at Merwin Drug at Broadway and Lyndale. So to me, it’s like, isn’t this cool?”

His entrée into real estate was not as silky. Barnard owned a 27-acre farm in Dayton, Minn., which he couldn’t sell because of the recession. He got to know the guys who ultimately bought it, two real estate developers sitting out the downturn, and eventually decided to become their money guy.

The partnership operates companies that serve vastly different niches. Homebridge developed a portfolio of distressed bank-owned properties in Minnesota. Gold Country Development LLC is a player in the Bakken oil region of western North Dakota. Partner Steve Boynton, a lawyer by training, describes the areas around Williston, N.D., as having “no zoning or comprehensive planning.” Gold Country invests in single-family and workforce housing, plus light industrial buildings.

“The Starbucks in Williston did a million net in its first year, so there’s a lot of opportunity up there,” Boynton says. “The hard part is avoiding the temptation to get into stuff not in your core competency.” He says Barnard has “developed an instinct for real estate; he enjoys the process, he comes to the strategic meetings.”

Barnard attributes his interest to sports columnist Sid Hartman, another North Side kid who spent his life in media but made his money in real estate.

Still, there have been bad patches. “If you want to keep your faith in humanity,” says Barnard, “don’t invest with people. They will always fuck you out of money.”

Camera-ready?

Twin Cities BusinessGiven Barnard’s reclusive nature, it may stop you in your tracks to learn he is seriously considering a move into television. Barnard and family were scheduled to shoot a pilot for an unscripted reality show (“Really unscripted, not like these bullshit scripted ‘unscripted’ shows,” says Barnard) being pitched to local stations by comedy writer and network producer Bo Kaprall (Laverne & Shirley, Hoarders, Comedy Central). Barnard says local channels 23, 29, and 45 have expressed interest.

It sounds far-fetched, but who knows? “You would always be smart to yield to Tom on business acumen,” says Shelby. “He’s made wise choices. That’s why I trust him on the podcast [venture].”

So the inevitable concluding question is a crass one: Just how much money has Tom Barnard made over the years in one lucrative niche after another? He won’t quite say, but he’ll meet you halfway: “My net worth is less than Joe Mauer makes in a year.” (Mauer is paid $23 million annually playing for the Twins.)

Not bad for a washed-up voiceover man.

This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.

***

The podcast business plan

If radio is the British Empire in decline, digital—and podcasting in particular—is the Wild West. Compass Point Media’s Noah Everist notes that “local podcasts have not been a factor in our [buying] negotiations.” He hedges, though, noting that “podcasting, as a distribution channel, is one [breakout] program away from becoming mainstream. . . Until that happens, it will be a niche way to provide custom content to a select few.” Tom Barnard and his nephew Sean are trying to create and sell that program. But “most people,” admits Tom Barnard, “don’t even understand what a podcast is.”

The Tom Barnard podcast “is simply about harnessing Tom’s biggest fans,” says Sean Barnard. No one is under any illusion about the secret sauce.

“This audience is not turning in for the subject matter, they are turning in for Tom,” says co-host Don Shelby. “That’s his power and that’s his gift. His audience is as loyal as any in the nation.”

The ultimate goal is to create a self-sustaining daily program and then a network of other podcasts.

Podcasting in today’s radio industry usually means digital archives of previous on-air content. Non-broadcast podcasts are usually narrow-focus specialty programming with limited audiences. There are few nationally influential podcasts—comic Adam Carolla’s is regarded as the most listened to (400,000 downloads a day)—but Barnard believes even the largest use them as a platform for promoting other aspects of their brands.

“I will probably be the first local podcast to do a million dollars in strictly local revenue,” Barnard says.

An advertising-based revenue model was one both Tom and Sean Barnard knew and were comfortable with. “[Only] 10 percent of people surveyed a couple years ago said they would pay [to subscribe] to a podcast,” Sean Barnard recalls.

Tom Barnard says the podcast was not in the black in 2013, but did bring in $250,000 in revenue as it built “case studies” for advertisers. “The goal is to double the listenership,” says Sean Barnard, who noted at 2013’s end that he had $300,000 in revenue already on the books for 2014, with a goal of $800,000, which would make the podcast nicely profitable.

Walser Automotive Group and R.F. Moeller Jewelers—two advertising relationships that date to the mid-2000s on KQRS—are early sponsors. Though podcasts can be streamed anywhere there is Internet bandwidth, the Barnards are focused on Twin Cities listenership because that’s where the advertisers are. “Right now, national advertising is difficult,” Sean Barnard says, “because the industry lacks uniform analytics.”

The podcast’s marketing approach is multifaceted. “There’s a lot of sharing of the brand on social media, getting people to be brand ambassadors,” Sean Barnard says. But there are also 101 Metro Transit buses around town with the podcast’s ad.

The business incurred roughly $250,000 in start-up costs in 2012. Its largest ongoing overhead expenses are salaries and online bandwidth. Shelby and Tom Barnard are currently unsalaried. Shelby will get 10 percent of the net as the show generates profit.

Still, the potential is not limitless. Sponsors are served in live conversational drop-ins, not recorded ads. And Tom Barnard is reluctant to add too much advertising to a program hour, believing that heavy ad loads have made many radio shows nearly unlistenable.

“So we think from a revenue standpoint, there’s about a $2 million cap on the show,” says Sean Barnard. “We have a very finite ad inventory, rooted in a limited audience size, so you can only generate so much.”

Beyond the bluster: a glimpse into the person behind the persona

Tom Barnard is both the most demonized and most successful local broadcaster. It’s an unlikely combination in a town where playing nice and keeping your head down is how you get ahead. But those closest to him say that even his most devoted listeners don’t really know him, or how pained he is over his divisive reputation.

“There’s a little boy in there who’s really vulnerable, and I think the people that love Tom see that,” says his wife and podcast co-host, Kathryn Brandt. “But this is not a man who grew up drinking tea and eating scones. He grew up in an F-U world. You’re not going to get to the sweet layer unless you’re his friend.”

“Tom’s persona is confusing,” admits Don Shelby, who has been Barnard’s consigliere, if not friend, for 35 years. “Tom has a big heart but a hair-trigger. If something bothers him, he gets angry. He’s angry because he has felt misunderstood, mistreated.”

Representative of this is Barnard’s belief that it is public knowledge at KQRS that he cut his pay twice by 50 percent to stave off large-scale layoffs, yet “nobody gave a shit. No one ever said ‘That was a nice thing that you did.’ ”

Barnard grew up on the North Side of Minneapolis, one of seven kids, raised largely by a working-class mom married to a man who suffered from schizophrenia. Despite Barnard’s current association with right-wing politics, “Tom came out of a liberal democratic household,” says Shelby. “I gave him the NBC-Esquire political typology test and he tested left of center.

“Yet friends have disavowed him, people have moved away from him,” Shelby continues. “After the Wellstone stuff he had to hire armed guards, he had thousands of death threats. It hurt him incredibly. But his makeup is to respond to that with, ‘To hell with them.’ ”

Last year, Shelby was doing news cut-ins for Barnard’s podcast in his radio anchor role at Bring Me the News, a local news aggregator for radio stations and websites. It eventually morphed into a co-host job. “The Tom on the podcast,” he says, “is the Tom I know.”

Shelby says Barnard manifests some of the typical insecurities of a self-made man: “He believes people dislike him because he’s rich and he didn’t go to college. Truth is, he’s one of the most well-read people I know, but more importantly, he’s one of the most loyal and generous people I’ve ever met.”

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Comments (7)

Dukakis

Tom was the voice of the Dukakis presidential campaign in 1988. I always assumed the rightward shift in his politics was a business decision. For some reason, right wing politics plays well on radio.

AM vs FM

Why the constant references to AM radio? KQ is an FM station.

Some of us evolve

"Despite Barnard’s current association with right-wing politics, “Tom came out of a liberal democratic household,” says Shelby.

Most conservatives grew up in liberal households. The left hates us because we evolved and escaped the reservation.

Hate?

No - just don't care

Wellstone

Why the Wellstone thing ever became as big a deal as it did defies logic. It isn't as though Tom killed him. The plane crash and Tom's comment a month earlier were nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence.

It's such a hard life when

It's such a hard life when you have a giant, well-paid megaphone and not all are fans what you say or how you say it.

Another star on the victim walk of fame.

Puff Piece

Nice puff piece on Mr. Barnard. Given the controversial nature of the individual, it would have been a good idea to get comments from people who actually disagree with Tom or whose lives have been adversely affected by his actions. To give Don Shelby such a strong voice in this is a bit of lazy journalism. Shelby needs to keep his relationship with Barnard for the money, so he is not going to be credible. No mention of Tom's battle with addictions, homophobia, sexism, etc. Why not interview former cast members who were tossed under the bus? By my count a total of four people were interviewed for this lengthy piece. A highly interesting topic that could have been a serious piece of journalism. Lack of effort and insight makes this fall well short of a passing grade. MinnPost can do better.