The Diva of talk

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

Producer Cari Dwyer sits in a separate booth next door, working with a sound engineer to make sure the program runs smoothly. She answers the phone and prioritizes callers for the program, trying to ensure a range of questions, comments, viewpoints, and geographical representation. She enters all this information into the computer system, the live link between Lanpher and the production booth. Through instant electronic messaging, Dwyer proposes questions she thinks Lanpher should ask, seeks clarification on confusing points, and occasionally quips with the host. Every now and then, the crew ends up having to resort to wild gesticulations and rolled eyes through the glass window.

It's a little more of a circus this morning, because Ventura is a show unto himself. Dwyer pushes just to maintain order and get the program on the air. A news camera is there, shooting footage of the governor through the booth's window. The topic is property-tax reform, sprinkled with discussion of his latest book, Do I Stand Alone? Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals. Lanpher is comfortable with Ventura, in part because they used to work together at KSTP-AM. At times, however, he tends to bark at her, quickly raising his voice and interrupting her as she tries to clarify his statements.

And because the show's topic is complex, Lanpher will almost certainly have to insert herself into the conversation. Ventura's proposal is for the state to increase its share of school funding from 70 percent to 100 percent, a move he says would lower property taxes and increase accountability. His complaint is that today the state contributes only 70 percent of funding for schools, yet dictates the way school districts spend the 30 percent of the budget they generate locally.

From the start, the discussion is awash in numbers and bureaucratic jargon. "Why pay for just 70 and mandate the other 30?" Ventura asks. "Let's have the state, since they're already controlling 100 percent of that money to begin with, let's make it accountable on both sides."

Lanpher tries to clarify. "Eh, see, now we use that pesky word control," she begins. "If they're already controlling 70 percent of it..."

"No," Ventura cuts in, "we're controlling 100." They go back and forth, Lanpher attempting to make things listener-friendly. Ventura, however, just raises his voice. "Katherine, we're doing it right now."

Lanpher tries to rein in the conversation. "I, I, I know," she says. "But I guess what I'm saying is, To a lot of people, controlling money means controlling curriculum, controlling the way you teach. I think that word..."

"Well then, what's the difference?" Ventura cuts her off again. "We're doing it right now."

Lanpher refuses to give up. "If you're controlling all the money, how does that allow local districts accountability and their own control?"

Ventura's answer clarifies little. "Because if we take the 100 percent and say we're paying for 100 percent, then from that point on any additional money that is used in schools will be clearly the result of the local jurisdiction."

The next day, the discussion of property taxes continues, this time with state Sen. Larry Pogemiller, the DFLer who chairs the Senate's K-12 education budget committee, and Republican state Rep. Ron Abrams, who chairs the House tax committee. This hour, Lanpher is trying to further decipher the governor's proposal and gauge reaction to it in the Legislature.

Dwyer sits typing questions to Lanpher, who sees them and nods. Why won't creating sales taxes on food and clothing work? Which tax would the lawmakers support increasing? It's a spirited program, as Lanpher tries to break the two politicians out of sound-bite mode.

The show is peppered with callers. Late in the hour, Lanpher turns to Roy, who's calling from Duluth. "I had four points," he begins.

"You know what?" Lanpher interjects. "Why don't we trim it to two. Make
it snappy."

"Well, okay, it was real quick," Roy says, flustered. "But real quick, I'll go through a couple real quick."

"You just lost a point, Roy," Lanpher snaps. "Come on, let's go." He rushes through his points, and Lanpher turns to her guests for comment.

The second hour slows to a snail's pace. Poet, novelist, philosopher, and farmer Wendell Berry reads from his new novel, Jayber Crow, in the deep, dulcet voice of a true Southern gentleman. Assistant producer Gabrielle Zuckerman has swapped seats with Dwyer and sends notes to Lanpher that all the callers "loooooove" Berry. Praise is fine, Lanpher types back, but it'd be nice if callers had some ideas to contribute to the conversation.

After the program, Lanpher races around the newsroom, as agitated as an athlete coming down off the high of a long run. "Don't get me wrong," she begins. "I don't want to get between the callers and this man. Who wouldn't love him? But do you want to hear an hour of fawning? It's not great radio."

The first hour was the kind of mad-dash program where Lanpher scurried to make sure all the arguments were made; to "make a complex subject legible to people with their hands in the sink doing dishes, or driving." And then came Berry. "Everything slowed down to a drawl and I hadn't slowed down. The first ten minutes I still had the same voice, when what I needed was my author voice."

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