The Diva of talk

Too loud, too opinionated, too brash. Few thought Katherine Lanpher could revive Minnesota Public Radio's sagging Midmorning. WRONG!

Her laugh, her voice, her show. Some people love them, some people hate them. And that open discourse--the exploration of contradictory beliefs--Lanpher would argue, is precisely the point.

Bill Buzenberg knew immediately. He'd read Lanpher's writing in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she worked for 16 years as a reporter and columnist, but it was at their first meeting in January 1998 that the idea came to him. A mutual acquaintance suggested to Buzenberg, who had just left his position as vice president of National Public Radio's news division to join MPR as news director, that he get to know Lanpher. She came into his office at MPR and launched into what he recalls as a quick-witted chat, a bit of verbal Ping-Pong. "It was just kind of an electric conversation," he remembers (adding, for the record, that he thinks her laugh is terrific). She would be a great call-in show host, he thought.

The timing was fortuitous. Lanpher had grown tired by the pace of her thrice-weekly column and was looking for a change. Buzenberg had just arrived in St. Paul after 19 years at NPR, where, among other things, he helped create the national call-in show Talk of the Nation. MPR had a similar program, a call-in show called Midmorning. Its host, Paula Schroeder, had left a couple of months earlier, and John Rabe was shepherding the show on an interim basis. Though Lanpher's only radio experience had been a small-time evening show on KSTP-AM (1500), Buzenberg was willing to take a chance on her, just as he had done in Washington with a man named Ray Suarez.

An overhaul of Midmorning was in the works. Ratings weren't stellar, and its format had long been inconsistent, varying wildly from live call-in segments to taped interviews. MPR wanted to make it a more topical, all call-in program.

Buzenberg's notion of bringing in Lanpher met with resistance from his new MPR colleagues. She was hardly a conventional choice for the spot. She had almost no radio experience, and what she did have was highly commercial. Some at MPR couldn't believe Lanpher could make the switch from opinionated columnist to inclusive moderator. Buzenberg, however, pushed hard for her.

"She was incredibly bright, witty, she thinks really fast. She was a real journalist. Those were my criteria," Buzenberg says. "It took some convincing of people. It took some time."

Eight months, in fact. Lanpher started her new public-radio career in August 1998.

The transition was indeed difficult for Lanpher. "You can't do radio overnight," Buzenberg stresses, noting that the technological aspects alone are complicated, never mind the pressure of live broadcasting. "People don't understand what a skill it is to carry a two-hour live radio show on--no matter what." But Buzenberg was patient. After all, even Suarez had to get over a rocky start on Talk of the Nation. But by the end of his first year listeners thought he was great. By the middle of his seventh year, when he left the show, people didn't think they could live without him.

Lanpher, who usually seems to wear courage like a comfortable sweater, recalls her terror at first. She would work ten-hour days, six days a week, and arrive at the studio before 8:00 a.m. because she was so nervous. "It used to be that if we got knocked off the air I looked like an electrified mouse," she says, pulling her hair so that it stands on end. "Now I know what button to push....I scramble a lot better than I used to."

Whenever she talks about Midmorning, Lanpher is quick to point out that it's not her show, it's a team effort with producer Cari Dwyer and assistant producer Gabrielle Zuckerman. Together, the three choose and research topics, book guests, and come up with questions. "As a columnist, you're kind of a lone wolf," Lanpher explains. "At first I thought, 'I have a show,' but that's not how it works. We have a show. I'm not responsible for every topic, every hour, every question. It's a little less of me hanging out there."

It's also a big change for the newsroom goddess who, she admits, used to get down on her knees and beg editors not to cut her stories. "My copy is my flesh," she recalls saying in one of her more hyperbolic moments.

Star Tribune columnist Kristin Tillotson, a good friend, says that while Lanpher enjoyed her column, Midmorning seems a perfect fit. "This job is the one she's been meant for all along," says Tillotson. Though the column was well received, Tillotson says, Lanpher--who originally planned to study theater when she enrolled at Northwestern University--"is a little bit more of a show-woman than that. She is such a quick wit; some of the things she comes back with just make my jaw drop. And she's just as good with the policy wonks as she is with the gardener."

Off the air, Lanpher, Dwyer, and Zuckerman share an office. Harsh fluorescent lights beam down on stacks of books and a sea of reminders scrawled on Post-it notes. Together the three decide what topics to pursue each day. Shows are generally booked the day before; sometimes they are slated a few days ahead of time, sometimes the topic is changed as late as 8:45 a.m. if there's a hot news story. The nine o'clock hour is usually based on current events, says Dwyer, who has produced the show since June 1997. The ten o'clock hour varies a little more, expanding to author interviews or discussions of birdwatching. "Not every front-page news story is a call-in show," she says. And "there are things that matter to people that aren't necessarily on the front page."

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