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35 years of ‘Almanac’: An oral history of how TPT’s iconic show got started, and survived

It was “a strange time for the news, nationally,” says Jim Russell, KTCA news director at the time of ‘Almanac’s debut. “‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ wasn’t cutting it. … So we ended up trying to cater to those people who cared about the news.”

Almanac launch
The Almanac crew from 1984: TPT executive vice-president Bill Hanley, hosts Jan Smaby and Joe Summers and Almanac producer Brendan Henehan.
Courtesy of Twin Cities PBS

Almanac quietly celebrated its 35th anniversary last month.

The Friday night public affairs show on Twin Cities Public Television debuted on Dec. 7, 1984, a date that will live in infamy, according to Almanac producer Brendan Henehan, who has been with the show since the beginning.

The Reagan era was in full bloom, and there was certainly much political and cultural upheaval, including Walter Mondale’s presidential flop; the Bhopal disaster in India; Prince’s three Grammys; and the debut of Miami Vice. Oh, also: It was George Orwell’s fictional year of the Thought Police.

But none of that led to Almanac, according to those who were there. Instead, public television executives at KTCA, then usually referred to as “Channel 2” — now TPT or Twin Cities PBS  — say they fought for a chance to build a new type of public affairs show, with a format that would inform and entertain. And they wanted an hour each week to do it. 

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That format hasn’t changed much over 35 years, and there’s been an astonishing continuity of staff and hosts over its tenure. Besides Henehan’s continuous presence, Eric Eskola has co-hosted for 33 years, while the “new” co-host, Cathy Wurzer, just completed her 25th year on the show.

Here, a look at the founding of the show and its evolution, in the edited words of those who were (and are still) there.

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Bill Hanley, former TPT executive vice-president: I was in charge of projects at the time, and Channel 2 was kind of a stodgy place. Wonderful in many ways, but in ’84, Public Television had a stodgy image: white shirts and narrow ties. 

Jim Russell, then KTCA news director, had previously been a UPI correspondent in Vietnam, an NPR correspondent and executive producer of “All Things Considered,” and would later go on to start public radio’s “Marketplace.”: I was sort of the Lou Grant of KTCA. I had no prior television experience but I did know journalism. We didn’t do news, per se, at the time, but did have two public affairs shows on Friday nights. And they were both dry as dust. We got a new boss, who said those shows were boring and obligatory. Hanley and I agreed with him on both counts.

Hanley: Those two words — boring and obligatory — dumbfounded some, but I was ecstatic. This gave us tremendous running room to do almost anything that wasn’t boring and obligatory.  

Brendan Henehan, Almanac producer: We’d been doing the half-hour, traditional Washington Week in Review type of show, with journalists sitting in, so it was time to find something more lively.

Hanley: We had a limited amount of money, enough to start a small documentary unit, or try to fix the Friday night [public affairs shows] problem. WCCO was already doing documentaries and I thought: There’s no way we can compete with those guys. So I decided we’d go after Friday nights. But there was only enough money for a half hour. I spent the summer of ’84 in my backyard, with a legal pad, thinking.

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Russell: Bill came back with some ideas that were deep, diverse and diverting. 

Hanley: I told him we could do the show he wanted, but it had to be an hour and at 7 o’clock. There was no way we would do this in a half-hour and no way we would do this much work and not be in prime time.

Russell: We had battles over that. He could be a real pain in the ass but he was a smart kid, and eager. The show would never have evolved if not for his bravado. He always refused to let any of his bosses do anything to hurt Almanac.

Hanley: In the end I ended up winning on both points. [Without the hour in prime time] we couldn’t have the diversity and depth that would give viewers a chance to kick back and learn about Minnesota that week.

Almanac's format hasn’t changed much over 35 years, and there’s been an astonishing continuity of staff and hosts over its tenure.
Courtesy of Twin Cities PBS
Almanac's format hasn’t changed much over 35 years, and there’s been an astonishing continuity of staff and hosts over its tenure.
Russell: This was a strange time for the news, nationally. Traditional public affairs reporting had been tested and, in some ways, found insufficient. ‘Just the facts, ma’am,’ wasn’t cutting it. We weren’t covering the world the way people saw it. And there was no need to replicate what the local news was covering. So we ended up trying to cater to those people who cared about the news, and the way society was changing.

Hanley: Public affairs and politics were to be at the core, but we also wanted a monologue, something funny at top of program, to make it easy for viewers to sit down and watch. And I’d heard something on CBC radio that had a quiz element, so we wanted that, and also a commitment to history and music.

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Hanley: On my legal pad that summer, I wrote the name Joe Summers. He was a sitting Ramsey County judge. I’d interviewed him years before and remembered that he was colorful and had great quotes. I knew I wanted to do something with this guy who is so interesting and knows the history of Minnesota and is so well-versed in the news.

Russell: A motorcycle-riding judge with an off-beat sense of humor. I liked him from the beginning.

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Hanley: He didn’t agree at first. He kept demurring; something about the Board of Judicial Conduct. He was worried that a show like this might cause him to say things that might get him into trouble. At one point, Brendan said: “He’s not going to do it.” I said: “Let’s bring him in for auditions,” saying he’d be helping us find another host. I was betting on the fact that his ego would engage once he was in front of the camera and it would be easier to negotiate with him.

Jan Ingrid Smaby, former host: They’d wanted Joe from the beginning, and then Brendan came up with my name. I was with the [Hennepin County] Welfare Department at the time; I’d made news from time to time and been on television.

Hanley: We had a short list of other co-host possibilities; Brendan sat with them for interviews in front of my home video camera. We felt strongly that we did not want a journalist. Joe [Summers] sure wasn’t. Jan did quite well on camera so we brought her back to audition with Joe. [TPT executive] Gerry Richman ran up afterwards and said: “If it was up to me, I’d say hire her.”

Henehan: It was like TV 101. A green producer, green talent; we were all learning together and not smart enough to know what we were getting into. A week before we aired, we wanted to see if Joe could read a teleprompter. He couldn’t. But Jan could.

Smaby:  Joe and I had known each other professionally. We were on the sentencing guidelines commission and our paths had crossed a number of times. He was so brilliant and funny. They wanted him to do the opening monologue for the show, and were going to pay him more than me, because of that. But Joe said no. Pay her the same as me or it’s no go. 

Hanley: For the show’s title. I wanted an allusion to a print vehicle, and was fixated on the word “journal.” And I wanted Minnesota in it: Minnesota Journal. That wasn’t quite it, though, and I developed writer’s block, or titler’s block. Finally, I got a call from Brendan who said he had the title. He said it with such a level of certainty: “Almanac.” Minnesota Almanac? No. Just Almanac.

Russell: The first shows? They felt pretty good. We were tapping a very young and ambitious staff and even though we were in a studio, there was lots of camera movement. We had a good set and good rapport between hosts. People liked them; both were quirky. 

Henehan: We ran the first three pilots on Friday nights on Channel 17 [the less-watched sister channel to 2] but it also aired Sunday morning on Channel 2. In January, we switched over to Friday nights on 2.

Smaby: I was so jittery that first show. They told me, just relax; we’ll take care of you. And they did. I was always uncomfortable that we got so much attention [as hosts.] There should be more  recognition of all the people behind us.

Henehan: After the first show, Jan asked how many people were watching, I said maybe 10,000-15,000. She thought it was going to be more like 100, and said: “I’m glad you didn’t tell me.”

Russell: I had wondered whether authentic news makers would come on the show — with this informal setting and longer than usual interviews. Would they let their hair down, play along with the conversational approach where anything can come up? Joking and telling stories? But there was a hunger among the news-making community. They wanted to give more than sound-bite clips to TV news. And it turned out, if it was important, thoughtful and in-depth, the only place to go was our show.

Smaby: As we went along, Joe’s wife, Carol, realized that Joe, coming directly home from the show on Friday nights, so high strung, was not a good idea. So every Friday night after the show we went to a pizzeria in Highland Park to decompress with the crew. We formed a real sense of family.

Hanley: Joe always told us that he’d probably die at age 48, because that’s when his father died. Sure enough, when he was 47, after doing the show more than a year, he had a heart attack. Just when we thought he might be ready to come back on the show, he died suddenly.

Smaby: Everyone on the show was just devastated. To me, Joe was the show. I was the sidekick. We had such a good friendship. We sang together to quell our nerves and shared private jokes about people in politics and government. 

Hanley: The whole show had been based on Joe. He was the primary host, always did the monologue. He was the known commodity. We had a lot of input. Some said the show has to end. [General Manager] Dick Moore said the show was succeeding on his own, and we shouldn’t let this slow us down. He was such a beloved figure, so it was tough, so we did what we thought Joe would want and we had a show that week. The last 15 minutes were about Joe.

Eric Eskola
Courtesy of Twin Cities PBS
Eric Eskola
Smaby: We cycled through a series of guest hosts, then they held tryouts. Eric Eskola from [WCCO] radio did a show and during a break, Bill and Brendan asked what I thought. I said: “He’s the one.” They felt the same way.

Eric Eskola, Almanac co-host since 1986 and retired WCCO radio political reporter: I’d watched the show occasionally in its early years, did some sports commentary on it in 1984, and covering the Capitol, anytime a legislative item was on, I paid attention. But I can’t say I was a devoted viewer.

Smaby: Eric became indispensable. We had immediate chemistry, just like I had with Joe.

Eskola: It was impossible to replace Joe; he was a fixture in the community. But the show must go on. I’d done TV in Duluth in the ’70s, so I could read the teleprompter. Daunting? Sure. This was before there were 300 channels and the internet, so there were not as many places to get the news.

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Hanley: In 1994, I got a call from Jan. She was running for Lt. Governor [with gubernatorial candidate Mike Freeman.] I told her: “You can’t do the show.” She said: “Yeah, I know.”

Smaby: It was just shy of 10 years on the show that I left. Not because I didn’t love it, but I knew I wanted to be more politically active and didn’t want to hurt the reputation of Almanac.

Cathy Wurzer, Almanac co-host and MPR morning news anchor: I was in college when Almanac began, majoring in print journalism, so it wasn’t on my radar. I first learned about it in 1985-86 when I was covering the Legislature for KSTP radio. I’d met Eric at the Capitol, so I’d hang out Friday nights after the show with him and the gang. I was a groupie. When Jan left, they were auditioning guest hosts and I asked Eric if I could try hosting one night with him. It was a bucket list thing, and I figured it would be one and done.

Eric Eskola has co-hosted for 33 years, while the “new” co-host, Cathy Wurzer, just completed her 25th year on the show.
Courtesy of Twin Cities PBS
Eric Eskola has co-hosted for 33 years, while the “new” co-host, Cathy Wurzer, just completed her 25th year on the show.
It was a horrible debut, but they asked me back and offered me the job. I was working at MPR then, my first stint there, and management wasn’t excited about me working for public television. So I left and worked for TPT news for a while, then WCCO-TV, where they were fine with me doing Almanac. Eventually I came back to MPR, and hosting [Almanac] is part of the agreement.

[Wurzer and Eskola, once married, announced their divorce in 2014.]

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Henehan: The boilerplate we started with has really held up. From the first show, we’ve had  half a dozen topics, with discussions, sometimes with both hosts, sometimes one. We still do the monologues. A history question at the end of the show, where people call in with the answers, has been a fixture. I write the questions and have never knowingly repeated one. Some weeks people don’t get the answer, so it runs again.

Hanley: In the VCR age, we ran data bursts, quick images of documents or exhibits at an art museum, which viewers could freeze frame and look at. We added live music at one point, and had to learn how to stage it.

Mary Lahammer
Courtesy of Twin Cities PBS
Mary Lahammer
Henehan: One of the bigger changes came when we hired a political reporter to hang out at the Capitol. Mary Lahammer came in 1998, right before the Ventura campaign. [David Gillette does feature stories] and two years ago we got a grant to hire Kaomi Goetz to cover greater Minnesota. We didn’t have the resources to send a reporter to Warroad for three days, but with the grant we did. Now we don’t have to make officials from around the state drive three hours to be on the show for five minutes.

Hanley: We’d try to keep diverting even while doing serious public affairs stuff. Once we were celebrating literacy, and had viewers read a favorite poem from their car. 

Wurzer: The formula does work — newsy things at the top, then to the couch for sort of newsy; middle of the show with music or history and the end is usually a political panel. We don’t get bored and hope the viewers aren’t bored.

Russell: Stations around the country noticed the show and it’s been copied and admired nationwide. We showed that public affairs didn’t have to be boring. And the longevity is astonishing. They’ve got the secret sauce figured out, because in this business, nothing lasts that long. 

Henehan: Nielsen numbers are proprietary and usually not shared. So, forgive me for not doing that. But I’m comfortable saying that Almanac is routinely the most-watched show on TPT Friday nights. It’s also not unusual on a Friday night for us to have more viewers than offerings from 7-8 on at least one major network. Some weeks we beat two networks. Other weeks, of course, we’re left in the dust. We crunched some numbers and come to the conclusion that people have watched Almanac over 90 million times during its run. 

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Wurzer: The most tension-filled, and ultimately, sad segment was with [Sen. Paul] Wellstone and [Sen. Norm] Coleman [in 2002.] It was quite a debate and both were amped up. Guests usually stay around and shake hands afterwards, but Wellstone was not happy and he left. It was very soon after that he died in a plane crash.

Hanley: Martin Sabo resigned suddenly [from Congress in 2006] and a dozen candidates lined up to succeed him and they all wanted to be on the show. What could we do with that? Brendan and I lined the black floor with white tape to separate them, and put Mary Lahammer up in a crane. It was a gimmick, but surprisingly useful.

David Gillette
Courtesy of Twin Cities PBS
David Gillette
Henehan: I’m most proud of how we pioneered a new style of political debates; not standing at the podium and no stopwatch. Just candidates sitting on the couch, answering questions, jumping in. And in the governor’s race we’d get the final televised debate of the campaign.

Wurzer: Our last interview with Rudy Perpich was memorable. Both Eric and I knew him and had covered him at the Capitol. His wife, Lola, came to the studio with him for the show. We had a great conversation, and he actually said, on the air: “I love you guys.” Then he thanked us profusely. It seemed odd. At the time, no one knew he was sick, but he died shortly after this [of colon cancer in September, 1995].

Eskola: I love interviewing [children’s author] Kate DiCamillo and loved talking with [the late historian] Hy Berman. We had Hy on many, many times and he was always great. I remember at his 85th or 90th birthday party, Hy cornered me and said: “I haven’t been on Almanac in more than a year.”

Wurzer: I loved the panel of defense attorneys we used to have, people like Ron Meshbesher and Bill Kennedy. They were always lively. And our political scientists at the end of the show; they’re not as partisan [as politicos on earlier in the show] and give a neutral look at what’s happened.

Henehan: The big Hormel strike [in 1985] came in our very early years and was an important story for us. We had good access and got union and management to sit down together in our studio. We had a central role in the reporting and made us a venue to see some important conversations covered.

Henehan: There’s no big shift coming. We’re eager to incorporate Greater Minnesota coverage over the long term. The coming election year will offer fun challenges. What can we do differently to get our arms around the hyper-partisan world we live in. Almanac’s goal is to have respectful conversations but that can be challenging these days.

Eskola: It’s going to be a very active year and I’m very much looking forward to it. I always say my favorite guest is the next one. The main thing we have is credibility, and we have a devoted audience. We’re still a destination for folks who want to hear from the decision makers.