Old-Fashioned Cutting-Edge Radio

Over several nights about a year ago, a small miracle of human
interaction took place on KSTP late-night radio. Host Tommy Mischke was
embarking on a self-styled pitch for the Spectacle Shop, one of his
show’s handful of loyal sponsors, when a call came over the transom. It
had been a slow night and Mischke, who regularly acts on whims and
lives for surprises, interrupted the ad mid-sentence to pick up the
line.

The call was a wrong number. A man named Al was trying to reach the
weather line at KSTP television news. Mischke didn’t let that small
fact get in the way. He claimed to be the evening weather person
himself, a guy named Blow Zephyr. Either Al didn’t make note of the
oddly perfect weatherman name, or he didn’t care. He began explaining
his point, which was that people, when confronted by tornadoes, should
take more care in “getting out of the way.” It’s simple, counseled Al.
One need only step aside, as though avoiding a speeding car. Al
revealed that he lived in Maple Grove and had been through four
twisters during his fifty-five years.

Using made-up stories and half-baked facts, all delivered with ease and
in impressive detail, Mischke engaged Al, who turned out to be a lonely
divorcé recently fired from his insurance job.

Mischke started off by claiming that his uncle Ned had been
killed by a tornado. Because he was a quadriplegic, Ned had been unable
to get out of the way, as Al would have suggested. “There is a guy who
would have taken a step to the right or left but couldn’t,” said
Mischke. “He wanted to, badly. And then, there was old Ned in a
cottonwood.”

“Holy cow,” responded Al, guileless as Sancho Panza. “I’m sorry about that.”

Mischke, who is forty-two but was claiming to be sixty-three, went on
to ask whether Al ever thought that tornadoes might “have some sort of
consciousness” or, perhaps, possess personalities.

Al pondered this and then, excitedly, told of a tintype photo of his
great-great-grandfather that used to hang on his wall. After a tornado
ripped apart the house, he found that the picture had disappeared, but
its frame still hung in the original spot. Another tornado, he said,
had dumped fish on his lawn from a nearby lake. Mischke claimed to know
of a twister that had removed a woman’s bra while leaving her shirt on.
“That’s what I mean about personality types,” he said.

“You think, What’s with that tornado?”

And then he really pushed things. “You know in the old days tornadoes used to bring up slaves from down south.”

“What?” said Al. “That I don’t believe.”

“Imagine this situation, though,” Mischke pressed on. “You’re down
south. You know that tornado alley goes all the way down to the
Panhandle of Texas.” Mischke’s eclectic bank of knowledge makes riffs
like this seem almost believable. “You’re down there in slave country
and you have a tornado coming and you are owned by a man as sure as a
dog or cattle are owned. And you have this one out. You know this
tornado could do you in, but you also know it could be your ticket to
freedom. What do you do?”

Al had to admit, “You’ve got a good question there.”

“There are some, obviously, who went for it and died. I’m not saying
they were all sent north. But tornadoes, because of the way they move,
can pick things up gently and drop them down gently.”
“Oh, absolutely,” said Al with a chuckle. “You’re preaching to the
choir on this one.” The lonely man found himself, unexpectedly,
delighted. “I love talking to you,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me
calling again. You are a piece of cake. This is the best conversation
I’ve had in years.”

It’s this affectionate if not quite on the up-and-up relationship with
listeners—one that is not formal or degrading or belligerent—that makes
Mischke’s show so fascinating. It’s also what makes him the area’s best
known underground radio sensation, the favorite of pizza delivery
drivers, DIY auto repairmen, factory workers, insomniacs, late-night
lonely guys, and women who lie in the dark wishing their boyfriends
were more original.

Mischke is a self-described throwback to the days of entertainment
radio, before the AM dial was given over to political belligerents,
when the possibilities and probabilities of the medium seemed endless,
and the Lone Ranger always rode again. Garrison Keillor, in a recent
Nation essay, described him this way: “a free spirit who gets into
wonderful stream-of-consciousness harangues and meditations that are a
joy to listen to.” In nearly two decades of broadcasting, Mischke has
been compared to Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, and Keillor himself, but
on acid. He has been described as the Onion meets The Simpsons. You
simply never know what he’ll say. Once, when interviewing an expert on
the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, he began to ask all of his
questions to the tune of the famous Gordon Lightfoot song: “Could
something like this ever happen a-gain? / Is there any way we can
a-void it? / Should they be worried to-day / Up there near Whitefish
Bay / Or am I just getting all para-noid-ed?”

After several nights of conversations with Al, Mischke, as Mischke,
called to confess. It wasn’t a ha-ha, gotcha, Candid Camera moment. Far
from it. It was more of an invitation for Al to enter Mischke’s real
world, or at least his real radio world. This often happens to the
host; his show and the people he meets there bleed into his off-air
life. He doesn’t keep neat boundaries. Once, when a regular caller
named Cynthia—who sounds more than a little crazy—was out of town
appearing on Judge Judy (she would lose her case against a neighbor),
Mischke went to her house and fed and watered her dogs. That’s not
typical radio-personality behavior.

The confessional call to Al, which was broadcast live, was handled this
way: Mischke explained that he’d simply grown too fond of the
ex-insurance man to keep up the act. “I made up the name Blow Zephyr,”
he said. “But the guy you were talking to, who enjoyed talking to you,
that’s me. That’s the real me.” It was after the confusion cleared (Al:
“You still sound like Blow.” Mischke: “I’m Blow and I’m T.D. Mischke”),
that the small miracle happened. Al simply didn’t care. He didn’t get
mad, didn’t act embarrassed, didn’t seem to mind that he’d been duped.
“I hope you enjoy talking to me,” Al said. “I love talking to you.
Tommy, the whole thing is, you got to laugh. The key to life is you got
to laugh.”

Mischke introduced Al to Wildcat Fox, the show’s newscaster, and
another regular caller, an old-timer named Undertaker Fred. “Well hi,
Al,” said Fred. In one well-constructed moment, Mischke had knitted Al
into the family of misfits and weirdoes that populate the Mischke
Broadcast. From there on out, Al could call anytime, and he would. (Al
continues to phone, even though his home line has been disconnected.
And when he signs off he says, “I love you, Tommy.”) Mischke asked
whether Al knew any songs—a frequent question he puts to his guests—and
Al suggested “The Auctioneer,” which he then sang a bar of. Nobody knew
that one, but Mischke had another idea. “I tell you what, guys, I think
we’re going to end it this way: I want us all to yodel in our own ways.
All four of us.” And that’s how the show went out that night, with Al,
Fred, Wildcat, and Mischke, all yodeling together, but in their own
ways.

Mischke’s first time on the radio wasn’t nearly so auspicious. It was
just about twenty years ago and he was working as a freelance writer
for several local publications, and as a delivery truck driver. On his
route, he’d become a regular listener of KSTP’s Don Vogel. Vogel, who
died of bladder cancer in 1995, was a throwback himself, a gag man and
impersonator who was said to do Larry King better than King himself.
One quiet night, Mischke pulled his truck over near a pay phone and
dialed. Vogel put him on the air immediately and he panicked. “I must
have been their only caller,” he said. “I was on. And it was the
strangest feeling. I really empathize with those who get on the air
with me and are nervous or lose their focus. It’s sort of like two
giant doors just got pulled away and you’re looking into the Grand
Canyon. You are in this gigantic world now and there is no going back.
And I just screamed something and hung up.”

Mischke lives in a tidy house in St. Paul near the Midway with his
wife, Rosie, who is a psychologist, and their two preteen sons,
McCullough and Malone. On the morning of our interview, the house
exuded old-fashioned coziness. A wood fire burned in the fireplace.
There were tulips on the coffee table and throws over the armchairs. A
shaggy dog named Shep napped on the hardwood floor, woofing
occasionally. “The thing is, I wasn’t prepared,” Mischke said with a
laugh, remembering that first call. Then he slipped into what can only
be described as his amused voice, which sounds like he’s inhaled a bit
of helium. “That’s what happens when I’m not prepared.” After hanging
up the phone, Mischke sat in the delivery van and listened to himself
on the air (the station employs an eight-second delay). It was
horrible, he said, but then a very important thing happened. “There
must have been something about it, some sense that this wasn’t just a
guy who called up to scream, but a guy who kind of panicked. And they
started laughing. That hooked me to try again the next day.” Playing a
different character with each call, by the fourth time, Mischke had a
moniker, the Phantom Caller. He was hooked forever. “I’m on the radio
today because Vogel laughed.”

Thomas David Mischke was born on September 19, 1962, at St. Joseph’s
Hospital in downtown St. Paul, the seventh of eight children. His
mother and father were both German Catholics from central Minnesota;
his father Maurice was from Buckman and his mother Jeanette came from
Holdingford, a town Garrison Keillor once dubbed “most Wobegonic.” For
most of Mischke’s upbringing, his father owned and ran the Highland
Villager community newspaper. (Tommy’s brother Michael is currently the
publisher; his brother Dale is an editor). The value of independent
thinking and storytelling, along with an appreciation of small shops,
was impressed upon the Mischke children. “My dad got me out of high
school early every afternoon to work at the paper as part of my
education,” Tommy said. “And I’d go home and write stories at fifteen,
sixteen, seventeen.”

A quarter-century ago, good Catholic boys in St. Paul had two choices
for high school; both were military. After graduating from Nativity of
Our Lord Elementary, Mischke selected Cretin High, which, at the time,
was an all-boys school. He lasted one year. “I just couldn’t believe
it,” he said. “I felt like I had joined the service and I’m not the
kind of guy who would join the service. I wouldn’t do well with
authority like that. So here I am in a situation, at a rebellious age,
with guys telling me to come to attention and shine my shoes. And there
is no way I am going to do that.” He was in trouble from the start,
even getting into a physical fight with one teacher. “You’d have these
military guys with whiskey on their breath coming up to you and then
you’d have these Christian brothers who looked like they could swing
their arm and take your head off, and wanted to.” The only good aspect
of the experience, Mischke said, was that “it was a great fraternity.
You bonded in your connection with the other guys to try to fight and
beat the system. What it created was lifelong friendships.”

He was finally expelled after he walked into the Cretin principal’s
office and asked to speak with Colonel Klink. “I guess that’s only a TV
show,” he explained, deadpan. The alternative to Cretin was public high
school. Mischke, who couldn’t wait to grow up, called his time at
Highland Park Senior High a “bad stretch,” though he was voted “best
sense of humor” by his class. The combination of misery and laughter
would become a running theme throughout his life.
Mischke went on to attend St. John’s University in Collegeville. “When
I was a little boy,” he explained, “I used to take a Greyhound up to
St. John’s to visit my older brothers. This college was in the woods on
water away from all the world. It was an island and I just loved that.”
There were no anti-authority, Hogan’s Heroes stunts, only a little time
off to travel overseas. Two years in, Mischke transferred to the
University of St. Thomas for its journalism program and, after
graduation, was “shocked” to find that there was no money in freelance
writing. He bummed around the country, hopping freight trains and
sometimes playing piano in saloons. He’s been to seventeen countries
and forty states. He always thought he’d find the place where he wanted
to spend the rest of his life.

For a while in the late 1980s, it looked like that place would be
Butte, Montana, which he describes as a renegade town. Mischke prefers
the small, the underground, the individual, and the unique, as
evidenced by the introduction to his show: Ladies and gentlemen, KSTP
now presents the Mischke Broadcast, featuring the broadcast outcast
transmitting live from his renegade radio outpost here in the final
ninety feet of the city of St. Paul. “Butte didn’t consider itself part
of Montana,” said Mischke, sipping coffee, his feet propped up on the
coffee table. “It called itself Butte, America. So it was this
independent-thinking, wild, former big-labor town. They used to have a
ritual when they opened a bar in that town. They’d break the padlock
and they’d never close. Evel Knievel was from there. I used to stop
into a bar sometimes—I’d see he had his fancy car outside at ten in the
morning, and I’d stop in there and he was sitting by himself. I’d talk
to him.”

Even in that setting, tossing back drinks with the daredevil, whom he
had idolized as a kid, Mischke felt an uncomfortable tug—the nagging
truth that Montana wasn’t home and never would be. “Where you live is
really going to have a dramatic effect on your life,” he said. “And I
thought if I was going to have a place like that, let it be where fate
threw me in the first place.” So he returned to St. Paul and got the
job as a delivery truck driver and started listening to Vogel on the
radio. Home has come to mean a lot to Mischke. It’s the root of the
Mischke Broadcast and of his personal identity. “You turn a corner
sometimes and what would be just a corner to anybody else coming
through town brings on this sudden rush of memories. That’s inside you.
Nobody else can feel that. And you think, Wow, this place is bigger
than just what it is.”

In 1992, six years after his first phantom call, Mischke was hired as
Vogel’s sidekick for twenty dollars per show. They worked together for
two years before the relationship crumbled. At issue was the fact that
Vogel liked to wing it with little or no preparation, while Mischke
believed (and still believes) in gathering and fine-tuning a full load
of material each day. For every show, he typically spends about six
hours combing through newspapers and writing tunes on the upright piano
in his home office (he’s painted the black keys red and replaced the
front panel with glass, so he can see the hammers as he plays).
Preparation is a security blanket of sorts, in case nobody like Al
calls in. In case there are no surprises.

On top of the differences in methodology, Mischke says, management
consultants were pressuring him to push Vogel in a new and unwelcome
direction. “They should have gone right to Don,” he said. “But they
knew they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere with him. So they would go to
me, and Don resented the fact that I was trying to get him to change
the show. And he should have. It was his show.” Finally, he said, a
blowup ended the partnership. “But he was a real gentleman about it and
a couple of days later he asked me back. I just said, ‘You know, I
don’t think we probably should do this. I think what happened probably
will happen again.’ And so he went his way and I went mine.”

During Mischke’s first few months on the air solo, he played it
straight, delivering a news program with a lefty bent. He covered all
the topics of the day—abortion, gun control, race relations. “I thought
I had to go to the complete other side,” he said. “I was thinking that
maybe this radio thing is a little too frivolous and silly and
ridiculous.” He’s sure these early efforts rankled Vogel, whom he
called a mentor “in a half-dozen ways.” Among other things, his former
boss was a force against pretension. “I don’t own my own headset
because of Don Vogel,”
Mischke said. “He thought it was the geekiest thing in the world to
have your own headset. And it probably isn’t. It probably is a good
idea.” The mentor watched his pupil with dismay, interpreting his newsy
approach as a pointed commentary on how radio should be done.

Mischke found rather quickly, within six months, that he didn’t like
contributing to the cranky churn of AM radio, designed as it is to
incite apoplectic fits. “It was everything I hate about talk radio,” he
said. “A bunch of people set in their ways calling up to say they’re
set in their ways.” Radio callers, he added, tend to be more arch than
the general public; industry wisdom suggests that fewer than five
percent of listeners ever pick up the phone. “We have so damn much more
in common than we will ever have separating us,” he said. “If you get
most Americans together, it’s probably going to work best not to harass
gay people. It’s probably going to work best not to care so much about
whether they’re adopting a kid, but to care about how that kid is being
treated. Reasonable people would see this. And I think most people are
reasonable.”

The proliferation of rant-filled, right-wing AM radio can be linked to
the repeal, by Ronald Reagan in 1987, of what was known as the Fairness
Doctrine. The 1949 FCC rule mandated that in return for a license to
broadcast, radio stations had to cover “controversial issues of public
importance” in a way that allowed for a “reasonable” representation of
opposing views. Once that pesky standard was out of the way, a man
named Rush Limbaugh emerged. Limbaugh built his career on the notion
that mainstream media outlets were liberally biased. Through endless
chest thumping, he enraged listeners already mistrustful of the news
and ensured an appetite for more conservative fare. The biased media
morphed into the elite biased media, and talk radio’s modern audience
was solidified. AM talk stations have been propagating ever since, born
of the syndicated likes of Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

KSTP-AM 1500 program director Joe O’Brien doesn’t like to think of his
station, which is owned by St. Paul-based Hubbard Broadcasting, as
right wing. He says he chooses hosts according to their entertainment
value and their understanding of Minnesota culture, not by any certain
ideology. “If radio were a party,” he said, “these would be the people
everyone would want to hang out with.” But the fact is, nearly all of
KSTP’s hosts are conservatives.

“I’m around that climate every day,” said Mischke. “It’s all get on
board the train. And I’m not on the train. And what I hate is that
there even is a train. Because what I love about this country, what I
used to see, is that you just had all these wild individualists and all
these different ways of thinking and just this cacophony out there of
different views. There should be 280 million different views, to go
with every American, and somehow that has been winnowed down to two. I
don’t know how in the hell that happened.”

Mischke eventually abandoned straight news in favor of his vaudevillian
style of humor, certainly a more nuanced and difficult format. For most
of the last eleven years, his show has been a speedball of fabricated
news reports, songs, poems, interviews, and conversations with callers
who would likely be barred from any other program.

His worldview still bubbles up between the cracks. He recently talked
with a co-author of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots and wondered
aloud whether the business world makes people “less human.” Such
comments don’t draw hate mail or even angry calls. “People see it as
almost a loveable way to deliver the message,” he said. “If I say the
same stuff in a Hannity delivery, I’m a dead man. Right there is why I
survive at KSTP. Because I shouldn’t survive there.”

Mischke enjoys an unusual amount of freedom at the station. In part,
that’s because he’s on late at night, from ten to midnight, when things
are more laid back. Revenue expectations are low and, as he repeatedly
points out on air, management is sleeping. “The show is whatever I am
that particular day, whatever I’m feeling,” he explained. “That’s the
beauty of it. I always think that Letterman must some days not want to
be funny. He must. And God, he should be able to not do that. And then
it would be so authentic. And people would talk about how last night,
David Letterman said, ‘Screw it, we’re not doing this format.’” The
randomness of the Mischke Broadcast doesn’t appear to ruffle longtime
fans (though it sometimes confuses new listeners), perhaps indicating
that we as a people are less brain-dead than we’re led to believe.
Mischke wants listeners to be “somewhere between intrigued and
puzzled—and sort of drawn in, but not really so positive that this is a
wildly good time.” An avid eavesdropper himself, he attempts to create
that same experience for his fans, the feeling of “peeking into a
little window.”

One of his most poignant broadcasts came on a night when Mischke
said—had to say—screw it. It was September 11, 2001, and he wasn’t even
supposed to be on the air. At midday, KSTP had switched back from a
national news feed to local hosts. Somebody from the station called
Mischke, the oddball, the non-political guy, to say that Bob Davis, a
conservative daytime host, would do the nighttime program. “I was
furious,” Mischke recalled. “I said, ‘I’ll do my show.’” He remembers
arriving at the station five minutes before eight (at the time, his
slot was from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.). “The general manager and the program
director were standing just outside the door of the studio. And I
walked right by them and right in and just said, ‘Hi.’ But there was
all this tension. And I don’t know this, but the sense I had was that
they wanted to say, ‘What kind of a show are you going to be doing?’”

Mischke’s turned out to be one of the most humane commentaries
delivered in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. While pundits
announced that the world had fundamentally changed, Mischke made the
opposite case. “This kind of thing has been happening for years and our
country simply has been too asleep or too busy with shopping and TV to
take notice,” he said.
“It’s a terribly violent world, be it the Middle East, Northern
Ireland, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Somalia, Central America, China, North
Korea, Algeria. Violent retribution, aggression, and retaliation are
the story of daily life somewhere on the planet all the time. This is
just new for us. But it’s not new for people. It’s not new for the
children of this planet, and for women and old people, who mean to hurt
no one. This is the horrifically violent world we live in, which
operates parallel to the profoundly beautiful, loving world we also
live in. While these planes this morning were barreling into the World
Trade Center, elsewhere, in all parts of the nation, heroic deeds of
selflessness were ongoing. The same sort of selfless acts that can be
found tonight in the Middle East and Northern Ireland. The world didn’t
change today. No.”

Despite his gregarious on-air personality, Mischke himself, in his
daily life, is quite private. He likes radio partly because it allows
him to hide out—to speak into the darkness late at night, when AM waves
travel the farthest, without a bunch of people watching. He rarely
makes public appearances, doesn’t have his face plastered across
billboards or coffee cups. “I walk all around this neighborhood and all
over this community here and nobody knows who I am,” he said with
relish. Indeed, while we were talking, a lawn-care guy came to the
front door and didn’t recognize him.

The problem with large-scale publicity, said Mischke, is that it ruins
the “theater of the mind”—the picture of him that exists only in
listeners’ imaginations. He described a public forum where, afterward,
a fan approached to express disappointment that his favorite radio host
doesn’t look like Woody Allen. Mischke responded, jokingly, “I hope it
didn’t ruin the show for you.” The man answered, “Well, it kind of did.”

Contrary to what many expect, Mischke is really quite normal-looking.
He’s got all of his hair, a sturdy build (no, he’s not stringy like
Harry Dean Stanton), and eyes that crinkle when he laughs, which he
does often. He said, “It’s a little unnerving to hear what body they
think your voice belongs to.” But, he added, “You can’t tell people how
to like you.”

Most weeknights at around ten, Mischke steps from his house into a
neighborhood that’s asleep. He drives along an industrial back route to
the station on University Avenue, encountering no other cars. “It
reminds me of a ghost town,” he said. When he gets to the station, the
hallways are deserted, aside from a night security guard. He enters the
broadcasting booth, where his boardman “Boomer” waits (Mischke
nicknames all of his producers). For the duration of the show, Mischke
keeps mostly to himself. He doesn’t chit-chat during commercial breaks,
which he’s sure people gossip about when he’s not around. And at
midnight, he returns home along the same industrial route, into the
same quiet neighborhood. “In my mind,” he explained, “I go and open up
this little store and work for a couple of hours and come home.”

It’s a solitary routine, or at least it feels that way to Mischke,
despite an estimated thirty thousand listeners. “I like to think that
nobody is listening, or just five guys who are like Undertaker Fred,”
he said. And that’s how it has to be. Flipping on the lights in
Mischke’s dark corner of the radio world, with a daytime slot or a
sidekick, would fundamentally alter, and no doubt degrade the show. His
one-man-band approach allows him ultimate control and flexibility.
Sometimes he talks over the top of commercials, mocking slogans or
background music that he finds absurd, or he delays breaks altogether.
At the top of a broadcast a few years ago, he paused to think of what
to say next and didn’t speak another word for nearly two hours. When
listeners called in, he put them on the air without explanation. The
show took the form of a sound sculpture with people singing, reading
poems, and playing instruments.

Kookiness tends to attract kooks. Mischke’s regular callers have
included Al, Undertaker Fred (who claims to have embalmed both his
parents), Cynthia with the dogs, a ten-year-old boy named Luke, a host
of northwoods back-to-the-landers, and Great-Great Grandma JJ. Before
dying at age ninety-six, Grandma JJ frequently called in to play
ditties on the harmonica and to speak in Polish. “Tom’s compassion and
willingness to listen to those who are usually ignored is a big draw,”
said Derek Larson, a thirty-six-year-old suburban postal worker and one
of Mischke’s most dedicated fans. Thanks to server space donated by a
fellow admirer, Larson posts dozens of audio clips at
www.mischkemadness.com. “A good example is Undertaker Fred,” Larson
said, “who was banned from most programs at KSTP. That only made Tom
more willing to let Fred appear on his show. Everyone is
interesting in some way. Tom lets these people talk, and it’s
interesting to see how some very different people tick.”

To some degree, Mischke has created a situation in which he can be
morally honest. He stands up for small businesses while disparaging
Wal-Mart (he recently recounted one of his made-up news stories, about
how the company was hiring corpses because they didn’t require health
benefits) and the Mall of America, which he calls the Mother of
Abominations. He creates personalized commercials solely for local
companies to which he can lend his full support, like R.F. Moeller
Jeweler, which underwrote his most recent musical effort, a bluesy CD
called Whistlestop. Of Mark Moeller, Mischke said, “He is a good guy, a
friend of the family. Doing ads for him is just so easy.”

On the flip side, operating in a self-constructed, small-town world has
made it difficult for the show to expand to new markets, something
Mischke would like to see. It’s not as though there hasn’t been
interest. In 2002, the Jones Radio Network was set to syndicate the
Mischke Broadcast—which counts among its listeners Garrison Keillor and
David Letterman—from one coast to the other. Unfortunately, and perhaps
this is why Mischke feels so comfortable among the misfits of the
world, the man who can be laugh-out-loud funny also suffers from severe
depression. Several times he’s dropped out of his show for months at a
time (listeners were convinced he’d died), paralyzed by angst. Stress
is a trigger, and the syndication process was nothing if not stressful.

Big meetings, thick contracts, marketing efforts, spin-off products,
national ads, news stories about the deal: The negotiations, he said,
“were the longest, most drawn-out thing.” And at the end of it all,
“There was this date hanging out there, what they call a hard launch,
where I am supposed to go from being St. Paul Tommy Mischke to being
nationally syndicated Tommy Mischke overnight.” He began to look upon
Monday, March 25, 2002, with intense dread.

Mischke expressed consternation on the air, noting that he had the
worst ratings at KSTP (he no longer does). “I mean it’s ugly, painfully
ugly,” he told listeners. “I stink in terms of ratings, people.
Absolutely stink up the joint. I’m an embarrassment. And I sit here
tonight absolutely accepting this assessment, and yet the show is
supposedly heading to the big time. Syndication, here we come. How does
one explain that? My show may very well be, how you say, a dud. Which
is kind of funny in a watching-someone-slip-on-a-banana-peel kind of
way. And I can live with that because we all have something we’re
capable of being bad at. But then why in the hell is this moronic
syndication company getting involved?”

By the end of Mischke’s show on the Friday before the launch, he found
himself spiraling into a “mental implosion.” He described the
experience this way: “If your brain has all these circuits, it’s sort
of like some guy was going through and pulling out cords. And
literally, each of those cords went to some important function. One
dealt with your ability to get up every day and walk out the door. One
dealt with your creative side. One dealt with your ability not to find
it terrifying that we’re all going to be dead in forty years. Another
one helped you be able to read the paper without being bothered by what
you read. However many of those cords got pulled out the last time, it
was the most number. It happened overnight.”

He knew the syndication deal was dead, “Because I’m now going to report
in that I’m leaving for a while. You know, when you play this thing out
so publicly, it’s bizarre. You feel like your life is this play on a
stage.” After his return to the show, he went to KSTP management and
asked why they didn’t fire him. “I really wanted to hear the logic
behind why they didn’t because it made no sense to me. If it’s not
working, people always say, ‘You don’t want to get fired, do you?’ I
really do. I want to get fired if it’s not working.”

Joe O’Brien, whose admiration for the host is obvious, wasn’t about to
fire Mischke. Instead, a year ago last January, with Mischke’s consent,
he moved him to the ten o’clock slot because he “seemed more like a
late-night guy to me.” He added, “Tommy is a very, very talented guy, a
very smart, observant, creative guy. He puts a lot of time and effort
and thought and creativity into what he does. And he’s doing
wonderfully.” Regarding Mischke’s bouts with depression, O’Brien says,
“Things like depression aren’t uncommon in our business. In Tommy’s
case it was a little more mysterious and probably a little more severe.
But it comes with the territory. If we had completely sane, healthy,
well-adjusted people doing talk shows, it might be a little dull.”

Mischke counts himself lucky that “the Hubbards don’t operate like
corporate America,” but rather “like a family business.” He has a hard
time imagining a scenario where he would survive long working for Clear
Channel. However, behind the microphone at his renegade radio outpost
in the final ninety feet of the city of St. Paul, he somehow fits. “I
didn’t come flying in from five, six other radio stations in other
cities,” he said. Mischke is a true son of St. Paul, a populist,
eschewing the big ideas of the left and right in favor of smaller, more
personal ones—those fringe beliefs that really are not of the fringe at
all. “I’m sort of a creation of KSTP,” he added. “I’m their guy.”