Air Barbara

With a week to go until Judgment Day, Barbara Carlson returns to her roots.

At the beginning of Barbara Carlson's independent bid for mayor of Minneapolis, her inner circle believed they could use the mass media to gain ground on the incumbent. It was a solid strategy. Carlson had spent eight years on the Minneapolis City Council delighting reporters with headline-ready hijinks. As a morning talk-show host at KSTP-AM she challenged public officials with a schizophrenic, but salable blend of fiscal conservatism and do-it-yourself social activism. She even published an autobiography whose readers learned, among other things, the size of Gov. Arne Carlson's penis. Outrageous and outspoken, Carlson cloaked her civic concerns in a sometimes sexy, sometimes clownish, always flashy costume, a feat few local media personalities and even fewer politicians will dare.

By contrast, the circle concluded, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton was likable but cloistered. She lacks dynamism, shies away from conflict, and avoids an increasingly impatient press. "Every time I take a stand, every time I speak, it will be an event," Carlson told her supporters in July. "People want honesty. They want to talk about what's happening in this city."

Carlson's campaign manager, Brian Sweeney, argues Carlson's been miraculously effective. In a few short months, spending just over $175,000, she's cut Sayles Belton's lead in half. A week before Election Day, Carlson trails by only 10 percentage points, while 16 percent of voters polled by the Star Tribune say they're undecided. "Her message is starting to register," Sweeney claims.

In the process of getting out the message, however, Carlson hasn't managed to market the essence of her image or transform her on-air bombast into electoral currency. "It's not about being nice," Carlson's glossy yellow and white campaign literature says. The phrase is revealing. In her efforts to be taken seriously, to prove Sayles Belton is too quick to avoid conflict, Carlson has come off as hard, wielding words such as "race" and "crime" like so many loaded guns. In print her quotes come off as didactic. On public radio she sounds agitated. On TV, she looks downright mean.

Nor does Carlson's banter play well at 6 and 10. Her personality is too big for a 10-second soundbite or a three-sentence synopsis. She can debate until the top of the hour, but she's loath to stay on topic. She's a spry and engaging conversationalist, but a prickly quote. In a word, the things that made Carlson succeed as a talk show host have crippled her candidacy for mayor. At least up until now.

About the same time Carlson announced her candidacy last July, she attended a birthday party for Tom DiNanni, a longtime friend and radio peer. For the occasion, DiNanni's neighbor Charlie Stroud--a fellow radio enthusiast--set up some low-low-watt radio equipment in DiNanni's living room. Guests took turns broadcasting their thoughts to the neighbors. At the end of the night, Carlson joined DiNanni at the microphone, performing a characteristically irreverent, impromptu shtick. Stroud was intrigued.

A 41-year-old radio junkie, Stroud has been doing low-watt broadcasts since he was a teenager. Last April, after working short stints for KS95 and WCCO, he drove a carload of equipment up to the University of North Dakota-Fargo to provide a flood-relief radio broadcast for the entire region. Because there were no rules and no corporate imperatives, the experience was addictive. More than ever, Stroud was convinced there was a need for low-budget, community-oriented radio, even though the FCC refuses to license any signal under 100 watts. "After all, it is our airwaves," Stroud says.

When Stroud read that Carlson was having trouble convincing Chancellor Broadcasting to run her political ads, an on-air light went on in his head. Recalling Carlson's birthday performance, he approached Sweeney with a proposition. During the last seven days of the mayoral campaign, Stroud would hold court over a private, pirate FM signal called Ballot Box Radio. There would be alternative music, community-oriented news, and--most importantly--time aplenty for Carlson to speak her piece to an 18-to-34 year-old crowd worth, in Sweeney's estimation, around 5,000 votes. Now Carlson was intrigued.

"Barbara's a gut-level, visceral politician," Sweeney says. "And she felt this was just another way we could get to a group of people who may be disenfranchised from the political process."

The price tag didn't hurt either, Sweeney admits. Even if the Carlson campaign wanted to buy a media blitz in the waning hours of the campaign, they wouldn't have the funds. Ballot Box Radio gives Carlson a heretofore unavailable opportunity to be heard on her own terms, in her favorite venue, for about $500--just enough cash to help Stroud buy the nuts and bolts necessary for an underground signal.

And so, on October 29, Ballot Box Radio will power up from a secret locale. Minneapolis listeners who turn their dial to 95.7 will be treated to an eclectic mix of trip hop, swing, and alternative pop from folks unofficially aligned with Americans for Radio Diversity. They'll also hear people-on-the-street interviews, a late-night show called Twilight Contemplations (REV fans will dig the "mystery" DJ), and a whole lot of Barbara Carlson. Besides taping a number of segments, the radio-ready candidate will also be available via cell phone to take calls on the air.

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