In Defense of Tom Barnard

RYBAK: Okay, I’ve spent the last three days watching the media have a field day trashing Tom Barnard (mainly) and his KQRS morning show (secondarily) and I’m just not getting it.

As we’re all well aware, (since it’s been front page news in the Strib and all over TV), the show ran afoul of Minnesota American Indian leaders for remarks made on a recent show about suicides on the Red Lake Indian reservation. Since then, everyone has stepped up to the plate to take a crack at Barnard– the latest being former St. Paul City Councilman Jay Benanav, who raged in a Strib letter to the editor that, "KQRS lets Tom Barnard" get away with blah, blah, blah.

Hey, Benanav, (who I believe may have an axe to grind with TB), it wasn’t Tom who made the grossly bigoted remark. It was his terminally stupid sidekick Terry Traen, whose painfully uneducated, ill-informed,tone-deaf pronouncements consistently drag down the show. Have you heard her on terrorists? The Middle East? Or religion? Or geography? Or movies? Take your pick.

By my transcript reading, Barnard tried to diffuse her remarks in as professional a manner as possible. Now everyone’s calling for him to be fired or to quit.

Still, nobody seems to be thinking about what actually happened in their rush to kick Barnard for — who knows? Remarks he made a decade ago? The fact that he has the second most popular morning show in the country? Because they can shake money out of the mighty Citadel/ABC coffers?

I may be in a minority, but I’m not alone in feeling like Tommy B is getting a bum deal in this latest dust-up.

Ron Rosenbaum, who got pistol-whipped on his KSTP 1500 radio show a couple years back, (for quoting a line from Goodfellas that a listener took as a racial slur), was most sympathetic.

"There’s nothing more painful than to be dragged through the media circus," Ron commiserated. "And in this case, the comment wasn’t even made by him. I’m not a fan of racist comments, but I don’t think Tom did what he’s accused of doing. People just accepted that he did."

Even you took a shot the other day, Mr. Lambert, by suggesting that his listeners were all bigots. Or most of them. Or the ones who lived up in Jesse Ventura country. I wasn’t really clear.

I don’t think you can stereotype an audience like that…not when 31 percent of radio listeners in the Twin Cities tune him in every morning. How about this for a theory? You’re driving in your car and want to listen to something in the morning on your old-fashioned, non-satellite-radio enhanced radio. You can listen to music; tune into MPR/KFAI or another public station for news, or you can take your pick of a number of middling talk shows that mix news with girltalk/sportstalk/teentalk/politicaltalk/whatever.

But what if you just want to be entertained? To have a couple laughs before you get to your day job? That’s when I tune into KQ.

There, I get weird news stories–many with local angles, one-liners,comedians and yeah, some stupid adolescent humor. I also get interviews with interesting people. Tom’s interview with docu-king Ken Burns was one of the better ones done during his sweep through town.

LAMBERT: Well … what is that giant puckering sound I hear? You’re going to have to freshen the lipstick a bit after that one.

I remember Rosenbaum’s experience pretty well. In fact, I remember writing a column for the PiPress defending him … on the basis largely that there was nothing else in his on-air experience that remotely suggested racial exploitation, much less outright racism. Rosenbaum was railroaded, pure and simple.

Unfortunately for Barnard, his record on this kind of stuff is nowhere near as clean as Ron’s. There’s a pattern here.

In this particular episode I get the part about Traen riding the stupid bus. (Although, let’s not omit the detail about Tom pitching that not exactly fact-checked line about the rich tribes not giving anything to the poor tribes). But my point is that knuckleheadedness is something Barnard both engenders and exploits.

Barnard’s a very shrewd operator. He and every other "shock jock" (tired, badly worn phrase, that one), understand that winning the ratings game means playing down, not up to audiences. Sure he can do an intelligent enough interview with everyone from mountain climber Ed Viesturs to Ken Burns. I’ve never said he was stupid. But the popularity of the show rests on a bedrock of adolescent humor — and hell, I laugh at fart jokes — and blue collar antipathies, which occasionally come back to bite.

As I’ve been explaining to some of the trolls on the comment board,my run out to the bowling alley in Ramsey years ago was prompted by statistics showing that Jesse Ventura pulled the highest percentage of support in the very same area that Barnard is most popular. Interesting. What gives? I wanted to meet these people. I’m not saying there was any great science to it. I could have gone to a church basement dinner and asked the nice ladies spooning up meatballs what they thought of Barnard. They’d probably have a different view of life.But as local watering holes go, the big bowling alley seemed a good place to chat up a reasonably average enough collection of locals.

And there were plenty of Barnard and Jesse fans to go around. Beyond that, what can I tell you? They said what they said, and more than just a little of it wasn’t exactly Chamber of Commerce quality stuff. But that’s life.

I saw the Benanav letter in today’s Strib. He might have helped his cause if he had reminded readers how exactly Barnard and he tangled.Benanav was running against Randy Kelly for mayor of St. Paul in ’02. Kelly was Norm Coleman’s guy, and Barnard blistered Benanav steadily all through the last week of the campaign, including election day morning. No one could ever prove the impact of that kind of advertising", but 400 votes (Kelly’s margin of victory) ain’t much.

But hey, Tommy needs some good lovin’ from somewhere. Knock yourself out.

RYBAK: You know, I do appreciate the fact that you took a trip up to a bowling alley in Ramsey to do some field research, but I hardly think we should be taking that as scientific fact. First of all, there are no radio ratings that I have ever seen that pinpoint listeners geographically. Where would you get data like that? Does it exist?

Second, did you visit a bowling alley in South Minneapolis? St.Paul? Is the correlation really to Ramsey..or could it be to bowlers?

I am absolutely certain that if you searched cars throughout South Minneapolis and socially conscious Edina, you’d find an ENORMOUS numberof radios with KQ set on the dial–and not for the classic rock.

Tom Barnard’s career here has lasted almost 40 years, and the guy’s not on the fade–he still dominates the ratings. Just as you’ve written some dud columns and I’ve written some lame-ass stories–everyone has their off days. I’ve even gotten facts WRONG (as you mention thatBarnard did). Have you ever gotten a fact wrong?

My point is that this episode shouldn’t be recorded in the Barnard ledger that the press dutifully tallies up and regurgitates each time he makes the news–it’s one for Terry Traen. That’s all.

LAMBERT: I’ll dig through my vast collection offloppy discs and find the old, whacked PiPress story, which explained the geographical confluence, and it was as scientific as the Arbitron ratings and radio research ever gets. But I’ll show what a big guy I am and concede this: This latest flare-up doesn’t rise to the level of theSomali or Hmong episodes. What’s more … (all I do is give and give and give) … I’ll also agree that Barnard takes more heat by virtue of being by far the biggest dog in town.

But as I’ve said, I’m not accusing the guy of stupidity. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and it is a calculated shtick — that after all this time is second nature to him. His talent is in playing it so well. A little up-scale for them with book learnin’ and plenty of down-scale for the kids in the back of the class. If various interest groups cared what Jason Lewis or Bob Davis were saying they’d probably have as good if not better reasons to go after them. But those guys can only dream of an audience the size of Barnard’s.

We’re talking about this at all because the guy — for better and for worse — is a bona fide cultural icon in Minnesota, every bit as big (hell, bigger ) than WCCO’s Boone & Erickson in their day. If the license Barnard exercises to win and hold a huge audience is the issue here — and that certainly is what interests me most — I think we can agree that it says something, something real and true about modern Minnesota.

Maybe you’re on to something after all. Maybe we should thank Tommy for holding up a fog-free mirror to the state of our sensibilities.There’s no gooey gloss on his shtick. Real, tenured cultural anthropologists — as opposed to amateurs like us — can use "The Appeal of Tommy B" as a damned good object lesson.

But hey, nice going. I’m betting the boy hasn’t gotten that warm a squeeze in a long time.