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Five minutes after his show last Thursday, KSTP-AM's morning man, Scott Korzenowski, was asked whether he knew of his station's proposed plans to hire back Barbara Carlson and give her his time slot. "I don't know," he said without hesitation. "I don't know anything."
Given that bad news travels faster than a high-frequency sound wave in this town's radio biz, Korzo was either lying or, like syndicated competitor Howard Stern, he doesn't get out much. Because around the water cooler at stations up and down the dial, the word is Babs has all but inked a deal with "The Talk Station" to rise and shine for the 5:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. shift. All that's left to do is pick a co-host.
When asked about the rumors, Virginia Morris, vice president and general manager of KSTP's radio division--the final authority when it comes to contract talks--had no comment. Carlson, proving she learned a thing or two running against Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton last year, is sticking to a nondenial denial: "I can't comment at this time," she says, pausing to find a version of the truth that won't tick off the new boss. "Though I believe KSTP is capable of putting the number-one-rated radio show on during morning drive."
What no one will deny is that Carlson has been chatting up prospective co-hosts on the phone from her Kenwood apartment, at lunch spots such as the Monte Carlo, and over coffee in Uptown to find out who has what it takes to get up at 3 a.m., put up with her notorious temper tantrums, and get KSTP out of bed before Dr. Laura chimes in at 8. Among others, she's reached out to Peter Bell and Mitch Pearlstein, both associated with the Center of the American Experiment; WCCO's Pat Kessler and his former colleague Tom Gasparoli; David Anger, associate editor at Mpls.-St. Paul magazine; Claude Peck, an editor at the Star Tribune; St. Paul Legal Ledger political reporter John Yewell; and Carlson's former campaign manager, Brian Sweeney.
"I got the impression it was a done deal," says Yewell.
Peck agrees: "She's acting like once she settles on someone who would be a good co-host, she's headed back on the air."
Anger supplies the most details about Carlson's plans. "We've spoken over the phone about it," he says. "We're going to have dinner next week. Conceptually she's hoping to have a little more joie de vivre than the other morning shows, without being as homophobic or racist. She's looking for something sophisticated and light--not boring."
That KSTP is looking to jettison Korzenowski and crew is no surprise. After canning Jesse "The Body" Ventura in the summer of 1996, the station has watched helplessly as its already dwindling ratings have stagnated. Today the morning show barely registers in the Arbitron ratings among 18- to 34-year-olds and is steadily losing listeners ages 25-54.
"They've yet to replace Jesse," says Gregg Swedberg, operations manager for K102, KXBR, and KFAN. "God bless 'em, but they ain't Jesse. So if KSTP is going to bring in someone new, they better be damn big and have a lot of money. Because since Howard Stern came to town, things have changed for everybody--except Tom Barnard and KQRS."
Of course Swedberg is a bit biased. KFAN now broadcasts "The Body" from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. But his analysis of the local morning market helps explain Korzenowski's apparent demise and makes one wonder if Carlson has what it takes to compete. When Barnard and Stern combine to triple the ratings of their closest competitors, it's hard for a host like Korzenowski--someone with no name recognition, no promotional budget, and limited on-air experience--to make a dent. It's also hard to believe Carlson could do much better.
Before leaving her 7-year-old midmorning show on KSTP in February of 1997, the soon-to-be mayoral challenger had seen her ratings drop to an all-time low. "I'm just not having any fun," she told the Pioneer Press on her last day. "It's no secret it's been a struggle the last couple of years." And while adding an engaging co-host might keep Carlson fresh, the people she's talked to so far will not bring along an automatic audience.
They will, however, have to develop thick skins. "I'm not easy to work with," Carlson bragged to City Pages last summer. "I've been banned from my own campaign headquarters."
Jim Pounds, vice president and media director at Periscope Communications, a Minneapolis ad agency, is skeptical whether Carlson could pump up KSTP's flagging ratings. "I can't fathom that any individual local personality is going to make a significant ratings difference until the market decides it's had enough of Tom Barnard," he says. "Because even if the loyalty to KQ is skin-deep, it's hard to make people change their behavior."
Still, there's some logic to bringing Babs back. In the wake of a messy mayoral campaign, her name recognition might skew higher. And given the overabundance of testosterone on the morning dial, it's also possible listeners are stuffed on sports and moronic banter, thirsty for Carlson's irreverent, albeit conservative, take on city politics, state government, and local culture.
"I've had discussions with her about how she'd love to build upon the mayor's race and kind of capitalize on what she learned about herself and the community," says Sweeney, who was brought on to manage the last leg of Carlson's mayoral run. "I also think she transformed [herself] from 'that wacky broad' into a serious public figure."
At the very least, Carlson is, as Pounds says, "notorious, unpredictable, and vibrant," characteristics that have attracted and will attract local advertisers looking for endorsements on a smaller, more affordable station--advertisers who haven't exactly been clamoring for Korzenowski's stamp of approval. Through the '90s, Carlson formed lasting, lucrative relationships with small companies such as Evergreen Jewelers, Sofas and Chairs, Cal Spa, Whiteway Cleaners, and Select Comfort Mattresses. Every time she opened her mouth to pitch for one of these businesses--frequently several times a morning--KSTP turned a tidy profit. And even when her ratings were at their worst, people at least knew who she was and where to find her on the dial.
True, in a brave new world run by conglomerates and populated by crass shock jocks, this old-school approach might fail, yielding little more than chump change. But right now it seems the prospect of chump change is more than enough for KSTP.