Tom Mischke still pioneering format-free radio

The man behind radio's most unpredictable show says it's just real life

It is just before 10 p.m. on September 18, 1997. Steve Konrad stands over a sink of dishes in his kitchen. He's a nine-to-fiver at AM 1500, the programming director there, responsible for its daily lineup of hosts and newspeople, and his late-night man is about to take the air.

In the demographics of major-market radio, it is a low-traffic hour. The bulk of automotive listeners have completed their commutes, and the listening public has become a viewing public—it's an hour for evening news and sitcom reruns, and the customer base that tunes in to Joe Soucheray and Jason Lewis by day is now likely preparing for bed.

But not Konrad. Tuning in at this hour is a frequent ritual of his, and so far the ritual is intact. The bumper music has played, the host has been introduced by the producer. Konrad thinks nothing of the first few seconds of dead air. Commonplace stuff. His man is often late, sometimes entering the studio during his own intro music, or later. Occasionally his man even telephones from his truck on a cannonball run to the studio.

Nick Vlcek
Mischke in the making: As a rebellious St. Paul schoolboy
courtesy of Tom Mischke
Mischke in the making: As a rebellious St. Paul schoolboy

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But the dead air stretches on. A lapse in the show has become the blankness of deep space, and its presence on Konrad's station is personally and professionally alarming. Konrad muses darkly that something has gone awry. He waits for a stall tactic—a sound effect, a sigh. He wonders if a microphone has gone out.

At the five-minute mark, Konrad lifts the phone to call the station. The producer answers.

"Is he there?" asks Konrad.

"He's here."

"Is anything wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong. He just isn't saying anything."

And then, a sound. The phone board has been triggered. Here is the familiar sound of telephonic static and, after an interminable wait, a caller's timid voice—"Hello? Hello?!" Then the hard clack of the line being disengaged. After more dead air, another call gets punched in. Static. "Hello?" Click.

Konrad is a veteran of this business, and, moreover, he knows his man. Konrad hired the S.O.B. himself. And now he stands dumbstruck in his kitchen. On his station, callers are being plucked from the ether. On his airwaves, they recite impromptu poems. They tune ukuleles and play harmonicas, train-wrecked with one another by a host gone mad at the switchboard. He isn't going to stop, Konrad realizes, and he's not going to talk. This is Mischke's show.

ARRIVING DIRECTLY from his daytime broadcast at the KSTP studios just down University Avenue, Tommy Mischke sits at a low top at the Dubliner, where we are the sole clients.

"The show started," he says of that 1997 broadcast. "I wasn't quite ready, and a few seconds of dead air went by. As I heard it out of one ear, I felt that familiar feeling of tension building. It was like exploring some cave you're not supposed to be in. That night, for the first time, I decided to see how long I could let it go."

Mischke is 46 years old, but neither looks it nor acts it. He has furtive, animate eyes. He laughs easily. When he speaks, he has the concerted look of a man searching for a screwdriver, and when he talks about that autumn broadcast, which lies a full decade behind him, his voice rises toward his upper register, as if pulled skyward by a bundle of balloons. Sometimes called "The Dead Air Show," sometimes called "Silent Night," the broadcast is one of the most discussed installments of The Mischke Broadcast, and one if its most elusive.

"Nowhere does an air check of that show exist," says Konrad, who remains AM 1500's director of programming. "We don't have a tape of it. No one does."

"This one seems to have vanished," Mischke says. "I hope it stays vanished.

He's a daytime man now, and has been since 2006, recklessly running a two-hour call-in show over the lunch hours that is a mass marriage of daily news and antique music, rapt monologue and improvisational songcraft, an auditory hope chest of disparate odds and ends.

Twelve of Tommy Mischke's 17 years on air were spent in the outlands of KSTP's broadcast day, the final local timeslots before the airwaves got handed off to Art Bell of Coast to Coast. As AM 1500's 10 to midnight man, Mischke found a gallery of nocturnal companions. Joe, the drunk from Minneapolis. Fred, the septuagenarian undertaker who sang Tin Pan Alley ballads in a throaty, wizened baritone. And Lukey, the 10-year-old boy who memorized Tom Petty songs to perform on air.

They were his listeners, his collaborators, and his victims, and Mischke was their artful dodger. "Renegade Radio" he called it, and, in a nightly abandonment of format, he lived up to the name, finding suitable material in any whim, no matter how absurd or how harrowing. He checked his personal voicemail on the air. He related news bits in song. He pranked the automated ticket service of Amtrak, seeking tickets from St. Paul to Gdansk, and sabotaged the national newscast with his bank of sound effects. And, as on that autumn evening in 1997, he often tormented the ear with interminable stretches of dead air, his breathing scarcely audible.

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