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IN THE WORLD of Twin Cities sports talk radio, spring can be a no-man's-land. By his own admission, KFAN midmorning host Paul Allen is in the business of merely killing segments at this time of year, when the Vikings are inactive, the Twins have barely gotten their cleats dirty, and the Timberwolves once again are on the outside looking in at the NBA playoffs.
So it's a godsend for Allen when Vikings backup linebacker Erin Henderson stops by the studio midway through an otherwise uneventful Tuesday morning show. Allen jumps at the opportunity to continue what he calls "the on-air internship" of Henderson, a semi-regular guest who has expressed some interest in trying out his broadcast chops.
While interviewing Boston Celtics play-by-play announcer Sean Grande about the NBA playoffs, Allen invites Henderson to pose a couple of questions, and Henderson lobs a softball about Kevin Garnett. Once Allen has wrapped up the Grande interview and said his goodbye, Allen continues his on-air tutorial.
"You froze in the middle of the interview," he says. "I saw fear in your eyes when I asked you..."
"No fear! Never, no fear!" Henderson protests. "I don't even know what that word means."
But Allen is undeterred. "Erin, Erin, this is not Altoona, Iowa. This is not Oxen Hill, Maryland. This is not Lodi, California. These are the Twin Cities. This is top-16 market material. If you want to make—when football is over—$375,000 a year minimum hosting a radio show, you need to know in the interview process, if you freeze for a second, just think of a player on their team and just go, 'Sean, Rajon Rondo—your thoughts?'
"He answers and then you start to think of how you can play off of Rondo," Allen continues. "That's called getting a conversation going. What I saw in your eyes three minutes into that interview, I have never seen that, except for after the New Orleans game when I couldn't see your eyes because they were in the top of your head."
In a media market frequently criticized for being soft on its sports stars, Allen has the swagger to tell a strapping young professional football player that he looked afraid. On top of that, he turns the "if I could be like Mike" syndrome on its head, telling Henderson to watch and learn because in a few years, he's going to want a job just like his.
It's quintessential Paul Allen. The 44-year-old is known simply as "PA" to listeners of KFAN-AM, the all-sports station where he has held down the midmorning time slot since Jesse "The Body" Ventura decided to run for governor in 1998. From the day he cruised into the Twin Cities in 1995 to call races at Canterbury Park, Allen rose to become one of the market's top broadcasters through a quirky combination of confidence, exuberance, and a vernacular that, if not all his own, was at least new to Minnesotans.
By the onset of football season, he will be a man in perpetual motion. On any given day, Allen may race between four or five different jobs. He's at the radio station by 7 a.m. for his 9-to-noon show, tapes spots for his advertising partners afterward, and often spends afternoons at the Vikings practice facility to record interviews with players and coaches for a weeknight KFAN show. On top of that, he finds time for his Thursday-through-Sunday race-calling duties at Canterbury. Back in his Eden Prairie home before midnight, he might spend another hour sharing insights with fans on his KFAN show page and in the website's rube chat before calling it a night.
"He has a great sense of show biz," says Gregg Swedberg, operations manager for Clear Channel Minneapolis, which owns seven radio stations in the Twin Cities, including KFAN. "From the day he walked in here, it was evident that he has talent and he gets it. You don't need to explain how radio works to Paul Allen."
FROM AN EARLY age, Allen has been propelled by his tenacity and clear vision through a rollercoaster career. He left Pasadena City College in California without a degree after five years of bumping through communications courses and as many extracurriculars as he could squeeze in.
"College was not for me," he says. "But specializing in individual things was. I was editor of the college newspaper for three years, I did a big-band radio show for the college station, and I traveled with the drama team."
He landed a job at the Pasadena Star News in 1988 covering Southern California high school sports and horse racing. Even then he displayed an uncanny knack for stacking one job on top of another, adding a stringer role covering the same two beats for USA Today.
Horse racing has been part of Allen's life since childhood. His father died of diabetes when Allen was seven. His mom remarried and moved the family from Washington, D.C., to an apartment complex next to Rosecroft Raceway, a harness racing track in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Young Paul would often sneak through the woods with friends to the backside of the track and watch the races.