By Jesse Marx
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Most often, however, her voice is loud, self-deprecating, punctuated by a sudden, braying laugh that seems to slash physically through the air.
Lanpher likes to talk. She likes to talk to public-policy experts, philosophers, or whoever might be her guest on a given day on Midmorning, the newsy weekday talk show she hosts on Minnesota Public Radio. She likes to talk to vendors at the St. Paul Farmers' Market about heirloom tomatoes or petite cantaloupes or the best way to prepare goat burgers. She likes to talk to her friends, to her fans, to journalism students about writing, to children in her neighborhood about the economics of garage sales.
Hers is far from what you might imagine as a typical public-radio voice--that low, mellifluous, soothing tone that murmurs information. Lanpher's voice rises and falls expressively--to some, irritatingly. It is the embodiment of her personality, and, on the air, it becomes her presence.
After two years hosting Midmorning, Lanpher has come to moderate personal exchanges just like she would the show. Conversations with her are inherently exuberant, sprinkled with amusing anecdotes. As she chatters, the words seem eager, as if they're excited to spring from her tongue. Often she's the target of her own mockery. Her head bounces, her hands swirl emphatically--even, incongruously, when she's on the air. The curious reporter and interested talker melt into one soul in Lanpher; no matter who is supposed to be driving a particular discussion, it is she who elicits the information, pulling it out like a magnet.
It's an interaction she calls "a human moment," something she aims for with her conversational interview style. "I try and have a human moment within the first 15 minutes" of each show, she explains. "People want a real conversation. People respond to that. People unfurl like a blossom when they realize you've paid attention."
Her own human moments are a little more veiled. Close friends refer to her showmanship, to her near-diva personality that guarantees she'll be the center of attention wherever she goes. But she is savvy enough to draw a line between Katherine Lanpher the persona, and Katherine Lanpher the person, and she is careful to dribble out only as much information about herself as she chooses. And as always she recognizes that her public face--or, more accurate, her public voice, the one on the air every morning from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m.--is as much a creation of a listener's imagination as it is an outgrowth of her.
"People will swear they know you," she says. "And they don't. They swear they know your opinions, and they don't. You just have to accept that."
There are no visual cues in radio, so every inflection, every laugh, every raised or lowered voice seems freighted with an extra meaning--a meaning that turns out to be extremely subjective. Lanpher insists that people hear tones--an edge to her voice, a sarcasm in her quips--that simply doesn't exist. It's a quality of the medium that at once makes it engaging and erratic. When people listen to Lanpher, they create a vision of her in their minds. Frequently, it has little to do with the real, physical Lanpher.
It's Saturday morning at the St. Paul Farmers' Market, and Lanpher is here. Actually, she's here most Saturday mornings, armed with a shopping basket and a strict budget. But today she's performing a live mini-version of a radio broadcast; she's stationed at a demonstration booth, making an Italian bread salad with friend and frequent Midmorning guest Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of MPR's popular The Splendid Table. In a red shirt and straw boater hat, Lanpher, who is 41, looks like a grown-up version of Madeline, the small but fearless French heroine of the famous children's book series. Her auburn hair is trimmed into a neat bob, with a few flaxen highlights that match the glint of amber in her cat's-eye glasses. The pair cackle and mug for the audience--Lanpher's toothy smile a permanent fixture between plump and rosy cheeks.
Though Kasper is the star of this cooking show, several shoppers milling about recognize Lanpher, either by name or by voice. After the food demonstration, a few people rush up to her. One man asks how she researches programs, how much time she spends preparing.
Next, a woman approaches her. "I listen every day," she begins. Lanpher's stocky hands rise to her cheeks and she smiles, holding her breath while she waits for the next sentence. This is the point that invariably arises in every conversation with a stranger, when Lanpher learns what someone has inferred about her solely from hearing her talk. The woman continues. "What I love is when you laugh. It perks everybody up."
"I'm so glad you say that," Lanpher says with a chuckle, relieved. "Because I've got one of those laughs. Some people love it. Some people hate it."