The Diva of talk

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

With only two hours of broadcast time each day, Midmorning can't cover everything. While the team has a collegial relationship with Gary Eichten and his crew at MPR's other current-affairs show, Midday, there is competition. Midday follows Lanpher's program each day and its crew may well swoop in and grab a topic Midmorning was planning for later in the week. "We're probably each other's best competition," Dwyer says. "We only have so much time."

Sometimes, however, the Midmorning team miscalculates, and those same two hours can seem like an empty eternity. Lanpher readily admits that shows don't always go as planned. Topics she finds fascinating--like stem-cell research--have proven too arcane for listeners. But if the issue is race, or transportation, the phones don't stop ringing. "Light-rail transit," she pronounces. "I've never seen people more exercised."

On other occasions, the discussion veers off in directions she didn't anticipate. One show, she remembers with a shudder, was aimed at the topic of children and drugs, yet most of the callers droned on about legalizing drugs. But she doesn't dwell for long on broadcasts that go badly, and if a guest is a dud, "You just burn the name out of your memory." She tries to advocate for her listeners when planning shows. A recent show with Harold Bloom, Yale University professor whose recent book is called How to Read and Why, for instance, wasn't to her liking. "I'm not sure I would book him again," she muses. "He's an esteemed literary critic, but he was very condescending to callers."

Daniel Corrigan

Of course, Lanpher herself can be curt with callers from time to time. She has no qualms about scooting them toward a point if they tend to ramble. "There are critics who don't like parts of her personality and her brashness," admits Buzenberg. "She sometimes jumps into the conversation more than the people who are conversing want her to or the people listening want her to....But it's moving. It's conversation. She doesn't suffer fuzzy stuff very long."

It's that brashness, Buzenberg says, that worried some of his colleagues. Lanpher has a larger-than-life personality, and to some, that personality doesn't fit with the genteel, even-keeled image of public radio. But Buzenberg disagrees. "Personality is okay for that job," he says. "It's a good thing. For some people, she has too much personality. Some people think it's not quite public radio. People have much more credibility on the radio if they, in fact, are themselves." Sure, he allows, Lanpher's voice can be high-pitched sometimes, though she's worked hard to make it more even. "Some people in public radio are an acquired taste."

But it's a taste, at least, that a lot of the original skeptics at MPR have grown to savor. Pride buoys Buzenberg's voice as he talks about the way colleagues have warmed to Lanpher's program. "People say, 'I didn't believe you, but this has been a good thing.'"

 

Lanpher's alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m. She leaves her Portland Avenue home and goes for a brisk three-mile walk up and down nearby Summit Avenue, time to clear her head and stretch her joints and muscles, which cause her constant, low-level pain due to years of repetitive stress injuries. After her exercise, she has time for a quick shower before sprinting off to work.

Around 8:30 a.m. she strolls into the newsroom on the third floor of the headquarters on the corner of East Seventh and Cedar streets in downtown St. Paul. She prints out her scripts--the introductions and sample questions she wrote the day before--brews a cup of tea, and goes into a little room and "warbles" to get her voice ready for the air.

Just before 9:00 on a September morning, the Midmorning crew is springing to life. First Lanpher enters the booth, standing at the guest mic, bantering on air with the host of Morning Edition, the news show about to conclude that day's broadcast, about her agenda for the next couple of hours. Off air again, she stretches her legs, bends her knees, shakes out her shoulders. Once the hourly news update gets rolling at 9:00, she takes over the host's chair from the departing newscaster, gathering up her books, papers, tea, a thermos filled with hot water and lemon and a special cushion she uses to comfort her back.

She arranges herself in front of an array of technology that looks like it could outfit the Batcave: a clock, a multi-line telephone, a console with countless buttons and levers, a computer keyboard and screen on an extending arm. She puts her headphones on, still standing up, as she does for much of the program. Normally, if she has a guest in the studio, she'll take these last few minutes to chat, going over some of the material they'll discuss or showing an author a particular passage she'd like him to read.

This morning, however, her guest comes in with just seconds to spare. In a blue sweatsuit, flanked by his press secretary and bodyguard, Gov. Jesse Ventura saunters through the newsroom, into the booth. As he sits down, Lanpher has just enough time to say hello before the familiar beat of the Midmorning theme signals the start of the show.

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