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Mike Gelfand’s ‘KQ Morning Show’ confessions

Sidelined by a sleep disorder, Tom Barnard’s comic relief says he wasn’t local radio’s Alan Colmes, but a political humbling led to personal peace.

Mike Gelfand: “I am a self-loathing Jew, but I don’t hate myself because I’m Jewish – it’s just coincidental."
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

If you’re like me, listening to the “KQ Morning Show” is a special circle of hell: right-wing blowhard mixed with reality-TV sensibility and a massive, worshipful audience.

But one guy always intrigued me more than host Tom Barnard: Mike Gelfand, the nasal liberal, mocked — sometimes gently, sometimes not — as the “voice of treason.”

 The “Stretch Monster” (as Barnard dubbed him after early Canterbury Park phone-ins) is actually a slight, painfully self-aware 62-year-old. Although a kidney stone forced him off-air a few months ago, he was really done in by a sleep disorder that, on bad days, keeps him from nodding off until 7 a.m.

 “In the beginning, I might sleep three to four hours” before a show, Gelfand says over a 3:30 p.m. cup of coffee. “Over the years, it got to the point where I couldn’t sleep at all, which meant many times I was up for 30-35 hours when I was doing the show.”

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Though the former Wall Street Journal and Star Tribune reporter cracks wise like a character from “The Front Page,” he’s somber at this point.

“I’d be talking during the show and all of a sudden I’d lose control of my jaw muscles. I’d be in the middle of a sentence and the words would just come out in a splash of random syllables. I was playing tennis, and a couple of times when I was really tired after the show, I just had this complete muscle breakdown where I just lost control of everything, found myself scraped and bleeding on the court.”

‘Alan Colmes never said that’

I feel a certain kinship to Gelfand because we are both depressive Jews, have radio-related sleep disorders (mine is much milder) and were liberals on right-wing stations (the Jason Lewis-era AM1500, in my case).

I gave up on my lightly listened-to show and went back to writing; he hung in on his top-rated one, despite being “fired” — and rehired — in the wake of the Bush-Gore election.

Over … what exactly? “It’s painful, and I hope Tom wouldn’t object to me bringing this up,” Gelfand says carefully, “but the worst moment ever on the show, from my perspective, was when Tom was yelling at me, and I said, ‘Tom, do you just want me to agree with you?’

“That’s a terrible question, because there’s no right answer. I’m sure what he said was no. And of course, I pounced and said, ‘Tom, if all you want me to do is be a sycophant like Bob here, and Jeff’ — I may not have used that word, but I start naming people in the show — ‘if you just want me to be like everyone else and agree with everything you say, just tell me, and from now on, that’s what I’m going to do.’”

I asked Gelfand how often he was compared to Alan Colmes, the hapless liberal enabler to Sean Hannity on Fox News’ old “Hannity and Colmes” show.

“I used to get that a lot,” he says. “I made my stand; Alan Colmes never said that.”

Still, Gelfand acknowledges the “sycophant” moment “probably turned out to be my last stand, because it wasn’t long after that they busted me down.”

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He never actually left the air; management instead cut his hours and pay. “They said there was too much talk,” Gelfand explains, noting that Bob Sansevere, nobody’s lefty, was also trimmed. “I think what they meant is there was too much rancor.”

Gelfand now calls the experience “incredibly positive.”

“The salary cut was humbling, but more significantly, I had to come to terms with the fact that there was no mandate anywhere for me to be talking politics on the show,” he says. “And I came to understand what people wanted me to do was entertain them. I didn’t want to be a vaudeville performer; I wanted to be someone with a cogent and important political voice. I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t — I was an entertainer. It made life a lot easier.”

Gelfand says his job “was never defined as the liberal polemicist on the show. My job was to be funny. [Colmes] played the fool.”

Still – considering the “Morning Show” rants about the Hmong and idiocy about Native Americans — did he ever go home and say, “I’m an enabler, I’m doing this wrong, I’m helping this guy I disagree with?”

“No, I never did,” Gelfand replies. “Maybe I was just too selfish, maybe it was the ratings rush. But one thing you have to understand – and it’s hard for people to appreciate this — even with the battles we had, there was always an affection there. I knew that being at the station was the dream job, and it was because of Tom.”

Brain worms and Capote’s lisp

In effect, Barnard had rescued a tortured soul.

“It’s a cliché, but I lived in the shadow of madness and despair as long as I can remember,” Gelfand says. “I’ve tried to look back a few generations and I’ve found madness, depression and suicide at every single branch of the family tree.”

In the course of researching a memoir, Gelfand discovered he had a great aunt who “spent her entire life in an insane asylum. I had never heard of this person.” His mother was an “extreme depressive.” An older brother killed himself a dozen years ago after battling a heroin addiction for decades.

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At 16, Gelfand says he wanted to celebrate his first drivers license by “cruising to Porky’s and not pick up chicks.” Instead, he drove his brother to the methadone clinic.

Gelfand was not unscathed. He describes his 10-year-old self as a “classic OCD kid,” which initially manifested itself by chronic washing.

“It worms your way not only into your brain, but your soul,” he says. “I was probably drunk almost all of my junior and senior year at [Minneapolis’s] University High School. I was never disciplined in my life. It was not unusual for me to come home, fall asleep in a snow bank and stumble into the house at 7 in the morning. Nobody said a word.”

The fevered brain’s upside was talent. Gelfand wormed his way onto the eminently wormable University of Minnesota Daily; his very first lead was: “Truman Capote lisped his way his way into the hearts of 3,000 people at Northrop Auditorium.”

He stopped going to class, and worked 80 hours a week at the Daily. “It was my entire life; it filled this need I had,” he says, a sentiment we Daily alums often share.

Gelfand describes his life as: “A series of burnouts throughout the years. Every few years, I’d take the OCD and channel it into something else. And of course, toward the end, I just burned out.”

The paper of romance and legend

After getting crispy at the Daily, he drove a cab, added gambling to his list of sins, but somehow lucked into a Minneapolis Star copy-editing job off some reviews he did for the afternoon paper while in college.

Problem was, the job required him to get up at 5:30 a.m. Two weeks later, “I got a call from the Wall Street Journal saying, love your [college clips], come on out. So I said, I’m outta here. And Dave Nimmer [then the Star’s managing editor] said, ‘I gotta tell ya Mike, it’s a lot easier to leave than to come back!’”

The 22-year-old Gelfand lasted barely a year in the Windy City. “Emotionally, I was just dying in Chicago. I was smoking a lot of pot. And I’m not the type who mixes well, quite clearly,” he says, adding with a nod to Groucho Marx’s famous aphorism, “I not only wouldn’t enjoy a group that would have me as a member, I’m suspicious of anyone who would have me as a friend.”

The Minneapolis Tribune offered a landing. “Definitely the most fun of my life,” he says now. “The Tribune was the paper of romance and legend. It had been the paper of Molly Ivins, Gerald Vizenor, Jack Miller, a celebrated group of reporters who had an attitude, even though the Tribune had been pretty stodgy.”

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He’s smiling now. “I’ll tell you a story about the culture there. I was assigned to cover the opening of Orchestra Hall. They assigned [society writer] Margaret Morris to cover, but at some point, they realized it was a cultural event of some significance, so they assigned me. Margaret would pass me notes that would say, ‘Mrs. Ford Crouch was wearing a taffeta gown.’ So I devoted one paragraph to the names of funny people.”

Forty years later, he can’t stifle a chuckle. “Ford Crouch! Peavy Heffelfinger! Topsy Ritz!”

The next morning, “I hear this kind of high-decibel shriek as I come into the newsroom. It’s Margaret Morris, a very prim and proper woman, screaming at Jimmy Parsons, who was the assistant city editor. The first words I hear her say are, ‘And then that little bastard …” So I had to walk by them to get to my desk, and Parsons lunges out at me and grabs my arm. He says, ‘You better come with me, boy, I’m going to chew out your ass!’”

Mimicking Parsons’ southern drawl, Gelfand says, “He drags me into the conference room, slams the door, and says, ‘That was one fiiiiine piece of copy!’”

For awhile, Gelfand says he was “getting the great stories, and the breaking stuff I liked to cover, and the cultural stuff I enjoyed. I was pissing people off. I was on the front page. I was professionally cocky. And I was emotionally unstable.”

‘Carew threatened to kill me every single day’

A stint at City Hall – day shift – went badly, but Gelfand wheedled his way into covering the Twins. “My baseball coverage was unique,” he deadpans. “It was somewhat acrimonious.”

Once, Gelfand was interviewing Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, an infamous grump. “He said, ‘I give all my good stuff to Sid Hartman.’ And I looked up at him and said, ‘I’ve read him, and if that’s the good stuff, give me the shit.’

“He just shook his head. And then I just walked off. What I’m saying is, that’s the kind of anger I lived with all my life. Carew threatened to kill me every single day. Carew and I had way too much in common. He obviously had fame and fortune, and I didn’t have those things. He was one of the greatest hitters of all time; I wasn’t one of the greatest writers, but I was pretty good and I was a prodigy. I’d gotten professional success and I was still pissed off. And he was still really pissed off.

“When I was 25 and covering the Twins, people would ask, ‘Why is Rod Carew so angry, he’s got all this money?’ But only many years later did I learn that a guy who grows up angry and feeling depressed, it doesn’t go away with money. It doesn’t go away with success.

“That’s one of the things that allows Tom to stay successful. It’s because he’s not comfortable, he still has the same angst all the listeners have, and they understand that about it. And I think that’s one reason, certainly, that listeners who don’t agree with his politics still enjoy listening.”

Gelfand wound up taking the final buyout after the Star-Tribune merger, getting a year’s pay and five years medical. “After years of being depressed, I knew I wasn’t going to get any better until I got out of there,” he says. “There had to be some sort of definitive end point.”

Gelfand pieced together a freelance career. His tax return once included 45 freelance employers. One of his gigs was with Ad Age, which sent him to profile a hot new voiceover talent named Tom Barnard. About the same time — 1985 — a hot new horse track named Canterbury Downs opened.

“My brother and I had been estranged, but he had kicked heroin, he had gotten a master’s degree in psychology, he was doing really well,” Gelfand recalls. “He and I had a fascination with the track because he liked the numbers and I liked the action. So we started a newsletter.”

At one point, Gelfand replaced Dark Star at a nightly tout show at the Canterbury Inn. “One day, I was riding pretty high. I’d basically just given the Pick Six to these people. I was a guru, people were coming like honeybees,” he recalls. “And there was this guy smoking a pipe, right? So I said, ‘Show of hands, everybody who came here to hear my picks?’ And people were applauding. And then I said, ‘Who came here to smell this asshole’s pipe?’ This is the way I was.”

Gelfand’s bad boy act fit pretty well with Barnard’s. Six months after the sports-heavy “Morning Show” debuted, Gelfand began calling in a “pick of the day.”

“From that, I started doing football picks. Then they said, aw, come into the studio. Then a little while after that, they said why don’t you stick around for the rest of the day. And then it was two or three. And that’s how it happened.”

Outrages, and conflicting loyalties

It isn’t hard to see where Gelfand’s loyalty came from. “Twenty-six years ago, you’re talking about a very bitter and angry and depressed guy,” he says. “Not the kind of guy where you’d say, ‘We’d really want him on the team.’”

In the early days, Gelfand says, most complaints he heard about the show were from Jews. “I was probably the only guy on the radio here doing the ‘Jewish shtick.’ My buddy, and a man that I loved dearly, [WCCO-AM host] Steve Cannon, didn’t really go too much into that. [KSTP’s] Hubbards … they were very conservative and I don’t think it would have made them comfortable. I think now it would be fine.”

He pauses impishly. “I am a self-loathing Jew, but I don’t hate myself because I’m Jewish – it’s just coincidental. I would get calls from the [local Jewish] Federation, ‘You’re fanning the flames.’ I guess I thought, ‘Someone has to.’”

Gelfand either wasn’t in the studio or didn’t pile on some of KQ’s biggest outrages, such as Barnard’s telling the Hmong to “assimilate or hit the goddamn road,” or Terri Traen’s musings on Indian reservation incest. Still, some, including a Minnesota Daily letter-writer, were disappointed a Jew didn’t do more to defend other minorities.

Gelfand says, contrary to the letter writer’s assertion, he never advocated the First Amendment as a defense. He recalls writing a Star Tribune op-ed advocating assimilation but called disagreement “a legitimate debate.”’ Critics responded that he was advocating “forced assimiliation” – “genocide,” Gelfand says. “It reached the height of absurdity.”

He wrote the piece in part to demonstrate loyalty, which would flare up in a different way a few years later during the political set-to with Barnard. Of that, Gelfand says, “The loyalty I had to myself conflicted with the loyalty I had to him.”

Overall, he adds, “I do think the show has become far less confrontational. I do think over the years, it did focus more on entertaining and what the mandate was.”

‘He can get the best out of people’

Was Gelfand surprised Barnard re-signed with KQ for another four years this summer?

“Tom definitely has an ambivalent view of life itself, so the show isn’t going to be any different. He knows, like I know, what a great gig it is. For one thing, the lack of sleep is a real problem. For anybody, but for him, I think especially,” Gelfand says.

“And Tom is a neurotic. One thing to realize is, in the early years of the show — I’m talking Year One, Year Two, Year Three — Tom called me up to say he’s quitting more than once. Because he’s an emotional guy. He cares a lot about the show and he loves the show, and when things encroach on it, he reacts strongly.”

Whatever critics may say, Gelfand adds, Barnard “is a great facilitator. He can get the best out of people. There may be some days he’s not inclined to do it. But that’s part of his appeal, too. People know they’re dealing with a real guy. One thing you’ve got to realize is, Tom is polarizing for sure, but people who listen to the show like Tom.”

Although the “Morning Show” still racks up a massive audience, it now gets beaten in the 25-54 male demo.

In part, Gelfand blames attrition. “A lot of people who are members of our core audience, God forbid some of them die, some of them retire, and even more of them got laid off and they’re not driving anymore.”

The business, too, has changed, he says.” When I started working there, KQ was still owned by a guy — an actual human being. Somewhere along the line, the guy who listens isn’t our customer; our customer is a banker in New York — Bain Capital, in the case of [competitor] Clear Channel. Look, when you’ve got Mitt Romney running your station, your listener isn’t that important.”

Heavy debt and “greed” mean “more and more commercials,” which drive listeners to satellite radio and their mobile phone’s music and podcasts.

Gelfand is no fan of KQ owner Cumulus’s recent decision to expand the “Morning Show” to five hours, from four. “Typical of what happens when people who own the station are not cognizant of local culture and preferences. That’s the sort of thing you might do in New York and Chicago, but now you’re extending the ratings period to 10 a.m., when people can’t listen because they’re not on the road.

“Now you’ve got ratings dilution, and I guarantee you that leaks into the numbers. That’s the death of a thousand cuts. Everything hurts.”

These days, Gelfand takes his meds, plays tennis with his kids and doesn’t hear his old show — not out of bitterness. “I generally sleep from about 5 in the morning to noon, 12:30. It’s better than it was. But I absolutely can’t get up to listen to the show. It would kill me.”

He says being more at peace “probably started with really being humbled” after the early-2000s rancor. “I understood, for the first time in my life, that not everybody wanted to deal with my shit. That had never occurred to me.

“It was only after my brother killed himself and the years that followed that, the years of trying to reconstruct his life and my life that I was finally able to put away all that anger, finally able to move on from that. Really, since my brother’s death, I’ve been able to start the process, the alchemy of converting that information and experience into something like knowledge.”

He pauses, and smiles ruefully. “Like I used to say on the old ‘Stretch & Z’ show: ‘You come for the laughter, and you stay for the tears.’”