No doubt he sees things with a bit more nuance, but to the interested observer, Tom Mischke has enjoyed a run in Twin Cities radio that is as unusual as it is enviable. For 25 years, the St. Paul native has been a truly unique voice/perspective on life in Minnesota and far beyond.
He’s worked for KSTP-AM, most famously as their late night voice; and at WCCO-AM, City Pages and more recently with KQRS morning jock Tom Barnard’s nascent podcast network.
In a medium — commercial talk radio — not exactly renowned for thoughtful meditations on a broad range of topics, Mischke, 52, has defied conventional wisdom and succeeded (if not lavishly in financial terms), certainly by surviving as long as he has with his dignity intact. Mischke is something close to an antithesis of the loudly bloviating masters of pop demagoguery. Where bigger names hammer their (larger) audiences with aggressive certainty, Mischke’s act is built out of curiosity born of uncertainty, whimsy and a level of literacy not available solely via the sports pages, Breitbart or The Daily Kos.
Although a self-described liberal, Mischke’s on- (and off-) air demeanor leaves no residue of tribal partisanship. If anything, the lock-step team players on every point of the cultural compass are often treated as objects of curiosity, mined for humor. The uniqueness of Mischke’s act registered within seconds of finding him on the dial. Here’s veteran magazine writer James Fallows in the Atlantic describing discovering Mischke one night during a drive to Duluth:
Within the first few seconds of tuning in each station I could tell what its offering was going to be. A Rush Limbaugh rebroadcast. A preacher. A pro basketball game. The allpurpose expert Bruce Williams, giving smug advice to people who had made horrendous life-management mistakes. A Spanish-language music program featuring accordions. And then something I couldn’t immediately categorize. The show was somebody talking, but he didn’t seem to be answering callers and he wasn’t sticking to the staple AM topics of sports, money, politics, and “relationships.” Instead he was talking about … Larry King, and why the column King publishes in USA Today should be considered uniquely preposterous in the realm of modern letters.
“The Mischke Road Show,” his current podcasting venture a series of thoroughly -produced field reporting/interviews with decidedly unconventional characters, feels very much like the edge of the next wave in radio, as fragmenting audiences seek unique story and quality content over the steady repetition of the same six ideas.
We met for lunch at the Longfellow Grill to talk about his past, present and future.
MinnPost: I’m always interested in how people describe their own shtick. How do you describe yours?
Mischke: Well, let me answer this way. In this latest incarnation, I called it “The Mischke Road Show” because I wanted to take it out to where the people are instead of inviting them into a studio. The world is happening out here, and there’s something a little artificial about bringing these people into a studio and talking to them away from their world. Sitting in your world is not the best way to get to know them or who they are.
But the subhead on it is, “Life All Over the Map,” which is intended to convey that I really want to explore all different kinds of humanity. The more your life is not like mine, the more I want to talk to you. The more similar you are, the less I’m interested in you. So, consequently: eccentrics, iconoclasts, marginalized people. I can’t get enough of that. I guess that’s a description. And I like exploring that sort of thing in people who may not present anything like it in public, but have it going on in their lives.
For example, you go to the Mill City Museum and you meet a gentleman who explains the exhibits to you. But in his private life in his basement he keeps thousands of worms, as pets, and thousands of flies, that are not pets, but creatures he’s studying. It’s the basement I want to get to. I don’t want to be out by the museum. If I could get into everybody’s basement or attic I’d be a happy man.
MinnPost: And what do you say is the value to your audience in meeting these eccentrics and marginalized characters?
TM: Two things. One is we’re all voyeurs. Two is that none of us feel as weird ourselves after talking to people and realizing that in the end we’re all eccentric to one degree or another. And that there’s a subtext of kinship to all these people.
I’ve done 60 shows now, about one a week. And I have a photo representing every show. I look at that them all together, and it really is “all over the map,” and I think: Look at us. Look what we are. Isn’t this unbelievable? The variety, the weirdness, the eccentricity. It’s something to marvel at.
A couple weeks ago I was interviewing [Grateful Dead guitarist] Jerry Garcia’s daughter and she mentioned taking 100 hits of acid at two years of age. I’m talking to this woman who seems intelligent and charismatic — I’m shocked she’s alive — and she says, “But that was accidental. I didn’t dose purposely [he starts laughing] until I was 10.” She and Ken Kesey’s daughter. They did it together.
But the marvel there, in that interview, is her life. The world she was brought into none of us can relate to. What she did, who she was around. At one point I told her, “My boring Midwestern upbringing compared to what you lived … .” And she said, “I’m so jealous.”
MinnPost: So the overarching message is that we should celebrate our eccentricities instead of hiding them away in the attic?
TM: I wouldn’t say that’s what I’m specifically trying to encourage. But I will say that I hope people realize that if you get on the elevator on the 40th floor with somebody who is kind of like you and you talk about the weather and you exit on the first floor, what happened there? The answer is: Nothing happened there. The moment was kept from getting weird, which may have helped both of your comfort levels. But if that’s a metaphor for our existence, what a flaming bore of an existence that is.
MinnPost: Is it fair then to say that you see yourself as an outlier?
TM: I never felt that way. Even professionally. It sounds like you’re thinking more of the KSTP years. But I think there’s been an arc, professionally. I don’t know about the eccentric part. I guess I don’t see myself that clearly.
MinnPost: Well, yours has never been a routine, conventional act. It was something unusual from the get-go.
TM: Well, yes, it was unusual in that I was at a station [KSTP] whose bread and butter was conservative politics, and radio before that — preRush Limbaugh — was very … dry. So I wasn’t doing that. But I guess you’re eccentric if you’re behaving differently than anyone else in radio. So yeah. It definitely was that.
But you have to understand that there can’t be more than three or four places in America that would have given me the freedom I had completely at KSTP and virtually at WCCO.
The other talk hosts at KSTP used to tell me, “Mischke, you better stay here because you’re screwed the first time you have to work a regular radio station. They won’t let you get away with this stuff.”
MinnPost: I thought that. The talent was obvious. But it was so unusual. So personal. I figured you were one of those occasional guys the Hubbards just simply liked. I mean, you are a St. Paul guy.
TM: Yeah, but when I got to WCCO I also had freedom. The glory of arriving when I did was that [veteran local GM] Mick Anselmo had taken over. It wouldn’t have happened before that. But Mick was an old radio guy, and old radio guys are like big kids. They just want to play around in it. They were probably like I was as a kid. “Let’s take a tape recorder into the woods and see what happens.”
So Anselmo’s first words were, “My plan for you Mischke is to stay out of your way.” And he did; there were no memos or any that stuff.
MinnPost: Yeah, but some of your success, talent withstanding, was the time slot.
MinnPost: As long as you were this night owl voice, fine. Do your thing. But dropping you into a time of day with heavier revenue expectations, morning or afternoon drive, that’s a whole different computation.
TM: No question. And that ultimately was where I kind of cornered myself. When [KSTP] got the Twins they told me I’d be on late some nights, other nights not at all.
But I thought my listeners had expectations, and that wouldn’t work, being constantly on and off. It made me realize how people think about what we present and the time of day. It matters. Jay Leno moved, what, an hour and a half earlier? And it was a disaster. People want you when they want you. Not that that had any bearing on why I was fired. But yeah, I became this “voice of the night” guy.
MinnPost:You were fired at KSTP for what? Something about putting someone on without telling them they were on the air? I suppose I could look it up …
TM: You can’t look it up, because the real story has never been told. The way it goes is that I was on the air one afternoon and I hear this jingle for [Hubbard-owned TV station channel] 45. “Forrrrteeefiiive.” And I think, Who wrote that? I think I’ll call 45 and find out. But of course, I’m calling us. I’m calling Hubbard. We’re 45. But I call anyway and I talk to a woman at the desk and she doesn’t know anything about the jingle.
MinnPost: The rule is you have to tell people that they’re on the air.
TM: It’s not just that. You have to call them ahead of time. You can’t even have an answering machine on the air. If you don’t contact them first, the second they answer the phone you’re violating the law. But I had done this hundreds of times. At night, mostly.
But what’s really going on is that a couple weeks before, I’d done this bit on McDonald’s, ripping them because their new ad campaign involved taking moms to their factories, into their industrial kitchens to show them how hard they worked to make food nutritious for their children. The spot didn’t last long. But was running then.
In essence what I said was: “You can’t feed this stuff regularly to your children. Not if you love them. You just can’t!”
And I felt perfectly safe saying that because I don’t believe in the history of KSTP McDonald’s had ever advertised with the station. I never heard an ad. But while I’m doing that, little do I know McDonald’s is negotiating with management to sponsor the talk box outside Target Stadium where the guys are going to be doing their shows. It’s all going to have this McDonald’s theme. But I don’t know this.
Well, some of McDonald’s’ regional directors are listening that day and they are appalled at what I’ve said. They call management screaming. I learn about when I get a call at home from my general manager saying, and I love this quote, “Mischke, you inadvertently stepped on a land mine.”
He goes on to say, “You couldn’t have known. But don’t say anything more about them.”
So a couple weeks later I have this, mishap, with channel 45, with the lady at the reception desk. There’s no question I knew it was illegal to put someone on the air like that. No question. I did illegal things. And I knew the rules. So I’m fired.
But a few weeks later Mark Moeller, from Moeller Jewelers, an advertiser, finds himself on a golf course and a guy from McDonald’s comes up to him and says, “Hi. I’m the guy who got Mischke fired.”
MinnPost: So you’re actually fired for the shot against McDonald’s, not the call to 45. But the official story is that it’s the phone call. Because why? Because being fired for upsetting an advertiser would reflect badly on Hubbard?
TM: No. They couldn’t fire me for upsetting an advertiser. What grounds would they have? Upsetting people is part of what we all do.
MinnPost: Yeah, but there always ways around that. You know, you rip an advertiser and suddenly your ratings just aren’t cutting it like they used to. You’ve become a “bad fit” for their new direction and it’s time to look at “new opportunities” and “spending more time with your family.”
TM: There are ways around it, sure. But as far as ratings, there were plenty of people there who were doing worse than I was. That’s one of the things I always loved about my time in radio. You’d look around and there was always someone doing worse than I was. The next guy on the chopping block, I could always see it coming.
But the guy says to Moeller, “I never meant to get Mischke fired. I just wanted him reprimanded.”
But it’s all fine. I’m one of those guys who needs to be kicked out, because I never have the guts to move on to the next thing.
MinnPost: Which in this case was the gig with City Pages, right?
TM: Yeah, and you’ll love this. You were an editor at The Reader once, right? Well, the freedom I had at KSTP couldn’t compare to the freedom I had at City Pages. I had a column to say literally anything I wanted, which means … I could make things up.
For example, I’d write a piece about this bus driver over by the U, with a picture of the guy. I’d say he was laid off from his job as a hotel concierge and his brother renovated an old city bus, so now he drives around ahead of the other buses and picks people up. He has coolers on board with drinks, and music, and they have singalongs and he takes them where they want to go.
This was during a rough stretch in the economy and people loved the story. It was so refreshing. This guy who had been laid off, out there making people happy.
Well, Oprah’s producer called me. Katie Couric’s producer called. “We’ve got to get this person our show!” NPR called. And I had to tell them, “There is no guy.”
They were flabbergasted. “You can’t do that,” they said. “You wrote a column! In a newspaper! This wasn’t radio. This was in print! Where’s the line at the end where you say you made it up?”
MinnPost: Where’s the disclaimer?
TM: Yeah. They wouldn’t believe it. They’d shout, “But there’s a picture!” And I’d tell them I took it from some stock photo archive.
MinnPost: So what was the point of it?
TM: I just liked that story. People responded to it. Just look at the response! It warmed their hearts. People wanted to believe it.
I interviewed an abstract painter the other day and he says when he’s painting these incredibly abstract pieces that are so hard for so many of us to understand that he’s hoping when people see the painting they’ll feel what he feels when he’s painting it.
Now that’s a tall order. But I don’t think it’s that big of a stretch to ask, “Isn’t that what we’re all doing?” Whether we’re writing a song or painting abstract art or writing a column? We want someone to feel what we’re feeling when we create it. So I write this story that fills me with delight, and I hope it does the same for someone else.
MinnPost: And what was [National Public Radio’s] reaction to this?
TM: Oh, my. The woman from “The Story” at NPR contacted [City Pages’ editor] and demanded I be fired!
She said, “This goes against all journalistic ethics! I want this guy fired.” And it got better. She waited two months and called back again demanding to know why I hadn’t been fired.
This sort of goes along with talking with David Simon [the former Baltimore Sun reporter and creator of “The Wire”] at one of these local journalism award shows. We’re introduced and he obviously thinks I’m an old school tough city columnist like him. He asks me how I got my material.
“Well, David” I say, “I gotta tell you I pretty much just make it up. I think of stories I’d like to read and I write ‘em off the top of my head.” The look on his face was like I had just landed from Mars.
MinnPost: Knowing a little about how radio works, my curiosity about you is how you were able to sustain your act. … So much of radio is filled with people doing the same, rote, cookie cutter act, the same buffoonery, and so often it’s on the advice of consultants wheeled in by station managers.
TM: Fortunately, the guy the Hubbards used was a guy named Bill McMahon. He’s still doing this stuff all over the country. His big thing was authenticity. So contrary to what people might expect from a consultant, he thought the problem in radio is that people weren’t being themselves enough. You brought up “buffoonery.” Is that who these people really are? No. It’s an act.
One of my favorite moments was when David Letterman came back after 9/11. Remember?
MinnPost: Yeah. That was remarkable.
TM: It was. And what I thought about as I watched that was that the hammer coming down every night, “Be funny. Be funny. Be funny,” ultimately results in an inauthentic performance. No one is funny all the time. But what if you can be funny when you’re feeling funny, and when you’re not, be authentic about how you’re feeling?
MinnPost: Jon Stewart just did that with the Charleston shootings.
TM: And it was the best Stewart you ever saw. Comedy, by which I mean really wonderful, profound satire can go as deep as anything, as any form of writing.
But comedy generally stays up here. That’s unfortunate for me, because I like to go in a bit deeper. If you can go in deep with comedy, great. But it’s very hard to do. Comedy is hard enough without trying to make an effect on society.
The point though, getting back to your question, is that authenticity was something the Hubbards believed in.
MinnPost: The wandering consultant thing is usually a radio station joke.
TM: Oh, yeah. And the first time I met McMahon I was still working with [Don] Vogel, who was old school and thought all these guys were idiots. That was the standard view of all the guys on staff. They’d tell you, “Hate management. Hate consultants. Everyone’s against you.”
But that wasn’t true, as I came to learn. The reality was that they, the managers, were letting you have a radio show. They were giving you all this freedom, and “Oh, by the way, here are a few rules we’d like you to obey.”
MinnPost: Or not.
TM: [Laughing]. The group dynamics at KSTP were kind of amusing. I remember the horrible experiment one time when the GM thought it’d be a good idea to have kind of a men’s encounter group up at his lake cabin. All the hosts, together. He hoped it‘d breed a little, “One for all, all for one.”
MinnPost: There’s no way Soucheray went to that.
Mischke: Oh, of course not. Joe would have nothing to do with it. But the idea was to sort of say, ‘We are not little islands.” But we are. We are little islands. We live and die by our own performance, not the guy on either side of us. Heck, I watched 27 on-air people get fired in my time at KSTP. It didn’t seem to me being a team player was going to change that.
MinnPost: OK. Authenticity. But why then have so many people succeeded so long by playing so completely within the standard paradigm?
TM: Right. Classic example: Jason Lewis. Successful in his attack dog mode.
MinnPost: But a far more interesting guy outside of it.
TM: Yes! Far more interesting, and far more engaging. And I think for a listener, someone who they could lock into and have that classic intimate relationship listeners have with radio hosts if they got to know him. KSTP tried to get Jason to bring the guy he is off the air onto the air, but he wouldn’t do it. I remember him telling me, “I’m an attack dog. That’s what I am. That’s what I do.” He didn’t want to try anything else. Jason sort of put on a uniform. Like a cop puts on his uniform. But the second he was off the air … . Well, I had him over for dinner one night. My wife had never met him. She never listens to commercial radio.
MinnPost: One of those all-and-only MPR types.
TM: Right. She only knew of Jason. His on-air persona. But we have a lovely dinner. A very pleasant night and good conversation. So Jason leaves. And my wife, who’s a very intelligent woman, and who enjoyed the conversation, later tells her friends, who are aghast that she’s had dinner with Jason Lewis, what a great listener he is. A listener. Something that I don’t think has ever been said about any other talk radio host in history.
But a much different guy. He’d get off the air and immediately go into this spot-on Barney Fife impersonation. He’d moon me through the glass. This minutes after he’d finished talking about the Founding Fathers and … .
MinnPost: The Federalist Papers!
Mischke: Yeah. And the Bretton Woods Agreement. I used to have this argument with Lewis, because I didn’t do politics, “There’s so much else out there. It’s a big world. You guys are hammering this all day. I gotta go somewhere else. I gotta do something else.” So I’d say, “There’s more to life than politics, Jason.”
His argument to me was always, “Everything is politics. You give me any situation and I’ll give you the politics of it.”
“Wow,” I’d say, “that’s a lens I do not know.”
MinnPost: And how has your relationship with Tom Barnard gone?
TM: You know. I had never met him until I started doing this podcast. I had heard all the stories about him. But there’s a bit of a lesson here in being careful not to believe all the stories. What I believe, ultimately, is that Tom is an extraordinarily tortured soul. I have great compassion for him, personally. I always tell him, “We’ve got to do something about the anger. [Chuckles]. Have you tried meditating?” He tells me he’ll give it a shot.
It really does go back to what I said about the façade people present and what they really are. You figure if there’d be anyone who’d be hard on his kids and a tough dad and an ogre around the house it’d be a guy who presents like Tom. But it’s the opposite. He’s a teddy bear. All I can figure out with my endless cross-examination is that something happened with that father of his and him.
MinnPost: You’re away from commercial radio now, but do you still listen to it? Are you struck by any evolutions or devolutions?
TM: Well, I feel I’m watching it die a very, very slow death. The same way I’ve watched for years the St. Paul paper arrive getting smaller and smaller to now where it’s wrapped up so tightly I put it next to my Highland Villager and it’s thinner than my Highland Villager. Radio’s coming behind newspapers in the slow death. Really, how much longer can AM radio be here? I just assume before I’m 60 years of age it’s gone.
I have step-kids in their thirties who don’t listen to radio. At all. What they do have is a list of 15 to 20 podcasts they go through. I was recently at a conference by the Minnesota Journalism Association and the topic was, “What’s the effect the big podcast, ‘Serial’ is going to have on journalism?” They brought me on as someone who is just a local podcaster.
At one point the guys 45 and older asked the people in the audience who were 35 and younger, “Do you listen to podcasts?” Their response was, “Exclusively!” That’s all they were listening to. They weren’t listening to radio.
Every one of them could list 15 podcasts they listened to. The reaction of the guys 45 and older was shock. They thought they might hear that this young group listened to one or two, and mix it in with radio.
[Garrison] Keillor once told me, this is years ago now, that what frustrated him about radio was the ephemeral nature of it. He did a radio show and it was gone. It was far more rewarding to write a book. A book was forever on a shelf ready to be read whenever someone wanted it.
It’s like that with podcasting. My shows now are there for anyone to listen to at any time.
MinnPost: Have you ever been approached by MPR, to work for them?
TM: A producer at MPR came to me and said, “I would like to work with you to get you to MPR.” He said, “I know the language. I know how to talk to them.” This was about five months after I started doing this podcast. About a year ago. But right away I started to get the feeling that the freedom I was given by Ginny [Hubbard and KSTP] and Anselmo, wouldn’t be there at MPR.
I hate to bring up Keillor again. But there was a point in my life where he gave me some very good advice. He told me one time, “Mischke,” and when quotes are powerful I remember every word of them. He said, “You will suffocate there. It’s oppressive.” There’s a reason he picked up and moved over by Town and Country [Golf Course]. That’s corporate America, not Hubbard Broadcasting.
MinnPost: I often tell people that in my experience, old, right-wing, conservative Stanley Hubbard has always been far more open and accessible and easier to interact with than anyone at MPR. There’s no comparison. And Stanley doesn’t have the word “public” in his name.
TM: There’s a wonderful aspect of conservatives that comes out every now and then. It’s the best angel of their nature. And it’s the part of them that loves “freedom” in all its presentations and machinations. Now the social and religious parts of conservatism haven’t caught on so much. But at least at KSTP they gave you enough rope, to either hang yourself or make a career for yourself.