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Tommy Mischke on creativity, independence, and his new new thing

With his new iPhone and do-it-yourself storytelling software, the world is his studio.

An iPhone and all its DIY magic will serve as Tommy Mischke’s new radio studio.
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

“I sent my first text two weeks ago,” said Tommy Mischke Friday afternoon, holding up his month-old iPhone while sitting in the log cabin study in the backyard of his St. Paul home. The veteran KSTP-AM and WCCO-AM host and City Pages columnist recently signed on to Tom Barnard’s podcast stable, and the iPhone and all its DIY magic will serve as Mischke’s new radio studio.

Mischke abruptly quit WCCO in August, citing burnout. After six months of “doing absolutely nothing,” he’ll return to the airwaves May 12 with The Mischke Road Show (whose web site is still under construction), a mix of storytelling, video, music, and photography that has the 51–year-old St. Paul native rejuvenated and reinventing himself yet again.

MinnPost: You’re a very independent person, artist, storyteller. How much of that informed what you’re about to do now, versus the reality of the job situation? Meaning, did you feel constrained by commercial radio, and is this the blank canvas you’ve been looking for?

 TM: I used to go into ‘CCO in at night and I’d come out after, and I just didn’t feel good about what I was doing. And I thought, “What’s the problem?” I had all the freedom. Mick Anselmo, the GM over there, said, “My job for you, Mischke, is to stay out of your way,” and he did that all the years I was there.

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When I was at Hubbard Broadcasting, they said, “Don’t ever work anywhere else. They’ll never give you this much rope. You better stay here.” And this was [coming from] other workers, who’ve worked at other stations around the country: “Mischke, you’re spoiled. The Hubbards are giving you all this freedom and that’s not the way it works.” So I go over to ‘CCO and I’m expecting the good days to be over, but Anselmo gets there a year before I do and he changes the culture there and says, “Do whatever you want.”

So I’m going home, night after night, and I’m thinking, “What’s the problem?” And the problem was 22 years of the regimentation, the grind. I don’t know that creativity necessarily should ever be placed in a routine. And if it’s placed in a routine, the clock starts ticking. And the life expectancy turned out for me to be 22 years.

MP: Plenty of people ignore that ticking clock. They do the gig.

TM: For me, there was nothing left in the tank. So then it was, “Well, what do you do now?” And for six months I didn’t do anything and I had no desire to do anything else and then Barnard’s nephew (Sean) had really been on me to do something. And just so you know, he put my City Pages deal together — on his own, behind the scenes. Nobody knows this.

When I got fired from KSTP, I didn’t even know the guy, really. We were co-workers a little bit at KSTP, but we didn’t hang out or anything, and he said, “Mischke, I’ve got your next thing. We’re gonna do a thing where you write a column for City Pages and do a podcast there.” I said, “I don’t know if that’s going to work,” and he got the parties together, he played the agent, he made it all work, he told me to keep it all quiet because he was working for KQ at the time. He did the whole thing, and that bought me a year between my no compete at KSTP and ‘CCO, then I get to ‘CCO and I quit that after three and a half years and there’s (Sean) Barnard again, saying, “You know what? We were five years too early on that podcast idea. The landscape has changed.”

MP: It’s true. Commercial and public radio can really feel like dinosaurs, especially after listening to a great podcast.

TM: Yeah, so the long answer to your question is I think what I got tired of was the box. The beige, padded soundproof [radio studio took its toll]. Not the creativity, but just sitting in that room. So this show is all about not being in the box. And by the box I mean literally the studio, not by “thinking out of the box.” I mean actually going out on a sunny day and going down to the Mississippi River and talking to a fisherman.

MP: Or yourself.

TM: Or myself.  But I’m not in a radio studio. Believe it or not, it changes everything. As much freedom as I had at ‘CCO, it’s still in a radio studio and it’s a commercial radio station with commercials and rules … and there’s nothing as free as the Web. It’s the ultimate freedom.

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MP: I bet what you’ll enjoy most is the ownership of the podcast, and the archives, and as a creative person, I think that’ll provide a foundation for you where you’re really building on something from the ground up.

TM: Stuff like that’s really important to me. When I got to City Pages, I said, “I want to own all my writing.” And they said, “Well, that’s not how it’s done.” I said, “That’s how I want to do it,” and eventually they agreed. They let me own it. I said, “I’ll put it in your publication but afterwards it’s mine.” They agreed to that. It’s a funny thing, but that is important — to have your stuff be your stuff.

The other part of it is that it was attractive for me to explore writing, video, and photography so the website will have all that as well. And the other thing you don’t know is that I read that Jason Davis was retiring from “On The Road” and I thought it was meant to be that I should host “On The Road.” I was going to make a strong pitch to do it, and as it looked like it was going to happen, my wife learned that she was going to live for the next year in [Lawrence] Kansas. She’s getting her doctorate in psychology at the University of Kansas, and she’s going to be the psychologist for the students there.

So I didn’t want to [commute] and do “On The Road,” and that’s when it all started to come together: What if it was “The Mischke Road Show” and what if I took Sean Barnard up on this idea and did shows from The Dinky Diner in Iowa? Then everything opened, then it was like, “Now the world is my studio.”

MP: It’s interesting because on the way over here today I was thinking about “On The Road” and how Kerouac would be doing podcasts now. It’s flight, it’s storytelling, and it’s perfect for you.

TM: He sure would, and he’d be great. We don’t know the answer to this question, but I bet if you could find the answer, it would be mind-boggling in its revelation: The number of human beings, songwriters in particular but I’ll say any creative sort, who have been behind the wheel when they wrote what they wrote, has got to be [infinite]. There’s something about that movement on the road, the idea that we’re going somewhere.

MP: This will probably make for a more intimate Mischke.

TM: I know what you’re saying. It’s already such an intimate medium. When I started in this with [KSTP’s Don] Vogel I’d sit across from him and say, “Why are you saying things now that you wouldn’t tell your own wife? Do you know there are thousands of listeners listening to you right now?” And I knew he wouldn’t say this stuff to his wife – the most intimate stuff – and that’s when I realized, “Oh my god, it’s this medium. He really does act like a guy in a closet at home, like no one’s listening.” So that intimacy thing is a huge part of the whole thing.

MP: How’s the learning curve with the technology going? That’s got to be freeing, too.

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TM: It’s going good. I found the coolest thing. It’s called Hindenburg Journalist, which is software for “This American Life”-type people who want to do storytelling, and I bought an application for my iPhone, so this is what I record it on. I can edit on this, and I can press one button on it afterward and it blasts to the Hindenburg software on my laptop and desktop. It’s very simple, just made for the human voice. Up until a month ago, I’d never touched [a smart phone]. I sent my first text two weeks ago.

MP: It’s a blank canvas. You’ve got to be excited.

TM: Yeah, and scared. Because the thing that you tell yourself is that it only really works if you’re half of it. You do your hootenanny to an empty room and it’s fun to play with those people, but you’re not doing it for that. So who’s there to receive it? That’s always a little scary. When I was doing radio and I realized that people like what I do, you can breathe at that point because up until then you’re working with the idea that, “I hope people like this.” And that’s not as fun. It’s much more enjoyable knowing they like it and being hit and miss with it, but know that they’re rooting for you.

I don’t know what’s going to happen with all this, but I do know that if I feel invigorated, which I didn’t last summer, it can’t help but result in people going, “Well, he’s back.” Thumbs up or thumbs down on the material, but “He’s not a tired old [man].” People were picking up that I was kind of coming across tired, which I was. Tired of the grind of it.

I don’t know what the average person does, because I believe my experience is universal: You go through life and you do stuff and stuff that wasn’t old gets old — and then what? What do people do? Do they endlessly reinvent themselves, or do they just say, “Well, it’s a living.” That’s what I was looking at. “I’ve got two kids in college, I’ve got a good paying job, just go in and do OK.” God, I would say that to myself and it was the most … it would sound like … it was the equivalent of someone saying, “Just get a job at Menard’s.”

It was the worst thing to say to yourself: “You know this lovely medium you thought was as good as it gets? Just go in and just be OK and it’ll just be OK.”

MP: You’ve never done that, you’ve never been like that.

TM: It’s hard to settle. It’s so hard to settle. But one of the keys of the thing is that I’ve got advertisers who are very curious to know if this thing will be good, or if it’s happening. I want to be able to go into Summit Brewing and say, “Guess what? There’s a bunch of people who like this.” If those guys get excited, I’ll make a living.