The Diva of talk

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

During her tenure at the Pioneer Press, Lanpher worked as a news reporter, a features writer, and a columnist. Her features and columns share a storyteller's touch, filled with details and characters, a sensitivity that often won her prizes and accolades. As a columnist, Lanpher got on her soapbox about everything from women's issues to gay rights to arts funding. She wove her opinions so tightly into her pieces that it was impossible to misread how she felt.

Consider, for instance, the June 1997 column in which she opined that LeRoy Neiman's art "stinks." The piece infuriated the St. Paul native, prompting him to pull his support from a potential museum in his name. Mayor Norm Coleman and then-Gov. Arne Carlson visited the painter, begging him to ignore the criticism. Lanpher wrote a second column standing by her opinion, provoking a blizzard of letters and calls from readers. Pioneer Press editor Walker Lundy countered with a commentary declaring that newspaper columnists must be allowed to express opinions--even unpopular ones.

Looking back on her newspaper days, Lanpher explains the difference: In reporting, you seek to gather information; in broadcast, you seek to frame it. For Midmorning, Dwyer and Zuckerman do advance interviews of all guests, so Lanpher generally knows how they feel about certain subjects and can steer the conversation to topics she wants to cover. Radio, she says, is a more communal medium, dependent far more on the interaction of guests and callers than on Lanpher herself. "Sometimes I feel like I'm in the middle of this kitchen table," she muses. "If you just sit back, people will engage each other."

Midmorning is also quite different from her earlier radio days on KSTP-AM 1500. During the 16 months that Weeknights With Katherine Lanpher was on the air in 1995 and 1996, she would simply turn on the mic and start taking calls on the topic of the day. "It was much more based on my opinion, my wisecracks, my personality," she says. "It was an entertainment-focused show, whereas what I do now is journalism." Laughing, she says the AM show didn't have the greatest ratings--colleagues joked that she had "public-radio ratings"--but then again, there wasn't much pressure in her time slot, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m., when few people listen to their radios.

The nightly show eventually proved too time-consuming and Lanpher quit. But she's thankful for the opportunity. "They decided I was funny and they put me on the air," she says. "If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be at the job I have now."

Lanpher doesn't like to contemplate--at least not publicly--what she might do next. "I don't plan the future anymore," she proclaims. "If you make plans, you're asking to be humbled. I don't know where I'm going to live in five years. I don't know where I'll be. If I'm here, that's just fine."

 

Last December, Lanpher did a four-day stint in Washington, D.C., guest-hosting NPR's Talk of the Nation. The informal tryout to succeed Ray Suarez (publicized in this paper, among others) sparked questions of whether Lanpher might be angling to dive into a bigger pond.

Lanpher shrugs off the speculation: "Forget me trying out for the job. I just wanted to survive the job. I didn't want to destroy the franchise."

In a perfect world, she'd do something national from here, Lanpher says. Right now she's working to do more shows from locations around the state or beyond. For instance, MPR toyed with the idea of sending Midmorning to Kosovo. "We talked about sending the show to a refugee camp," she says, eyes gleaming. "I thought that would be kick-ass." But she's the first to admit that the show, as is, remains a great opportunity. "I have a great gig. I'm just figuring out how to do it and still have a life."

Pioneer Press media columnist Brian Lambert says his longtime friend Lanpher did a fine job on the national stage. "I think she'll be well-positioned if [new host Juan Williams] decides to leave," he hypothesizes. "For someone like Juan Williams, there's probably a two- to three-year window when he'll be interested in a show like that. For Katherine, two to three years will be time for her to polish her act here."

Polishing her act means honing the art of conversation--and bridling her own opinions in order to let other people make their points. "Conversation is a true journalistic medium," Lanpher declares. "It's fun to examine something without making a pronouncement."

The toughest part--especially for a columnist used to speaking her mind--can be learning when to step into the dialogue and when to stay out. When she came to Midmorning, Lanpher recalls, she knew lots of people's ears were cautiously trained on her. "I was really conscious that everyone was afraid I was going to show up like Ethel Merman, belting out my opinions," she says. "To this day I still have to sort of watch it. The hardest part is arguing a side I don't necessarily believe in for the sake of the show."

She has learned through experience. "I've gotten better at asking questions and getting out of the way," she says. "There was more of me in the early interviews." And as she's grown as a host, her audience has also swelled; the number of Midmorning listeners has increased 36 percent since the quarter before Lanpher started. Experience has also taught her that different topics and different guests require different approaches. If she has two guests on opposing ends of a debate, she has to make sure that they air their points and counterpoints coherently; she envisions an arc for each show and tries to hit specific stations along the way. "I'm the caretaker for listeners," she says. "If [guests] are not serving them, it's my job to let them know."

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