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Air Barbara

Derek Brigham

At the beginning of Barbara Carlson's independent bid for mayor of Minneapolis, her inner circle believed they could use the mass media to gain ground on the incumbent. It was a solid strategy. Carlson had spent eight years on the Minneapolis City Council delighting reporters with headline-ready hijinks. As a morning talk-show host at KSTP-AM she challenged public officials with a schizophrenic, but salable blend of fiscal conservatism and do-it-yourself social activism. She even published an autobiography whose readers learned, among other things, the size of Gov. Arne Carlson's penis. Outrageous and outspoken, Carlson cloaked her civic concerns in a sometimes sexy, sometimes clownish, always flashy costume, a feat few local media personalities and even fewer politicians will dare.

By contrast, the circle concluded, Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton was likable but cloistered. She lacks dynamism, shies away from conflict, and avoids an increasingly impatient press. "Every time I take a stand, every time I speak, it will be an event," Carlson told her supporters in July. "People want honesty. They want to talk about what's happening in this city."

Carlson's campaign manager, Brian Sweeney, argues Carlson's been miraculously effective. In a few short months, spending just over $175,000, she's cut Sayles Belton's lead in half. A week before Election Day, Carlson trails by only 10 percentage points, while 16 percent of voters polled by the Star Tribune say they're undecided. "Her message is starting to register," Sweeney claims.

In the process of getting out the message, however, Carlson hasn't managed to market the essence of her image or transform her on-air bombast into electoral currency. "It's not about being nice," Carlson's glossy yellow and white campaign literature says. The phrase is revealing. In her efforts to be taken seriously, to prove Sayles Belton is too quick to avoid conflict, Carlson has come off as hard, wielding words such as "race" and "crime" like so many loaded guns. In print her quotes come off as didactic. On public radio she sounds agitated. On TV, she looks downright mean.

Nor does Carlson's banter play well at 6 and 10. Her personality is too big for a 10-second soundbite or a three-sentence synopsis. She can debate until the top of the hour, but she's loath to stay on topic. She's a spry and engaging conversationalist, but a prickly quote. In a word, the things that made Carlson succeed as a talk show host have crippled her candidacy for mayor. At least up until now.

About the same time Carlson announced her candidacy last July, she attended a birthday party for Tom DiNanni, a longtime friend and radio peer. For the occasion, DiNanni's neighbor Charlie Stroud--a fellow radio enthusiast--set up some low-low-watt radio equipment in DiNanni's living room. Guests took turns broadcasting their thoughts to the neighbors. At the end of the night, Carlson joined DiNanni at the microphone, performing a characteristically irreverent, impromptu shtick. Stroud was intrigued.

A 41-year-old radio junkie, Stroud has been doing low-watt broadcasts since he was a teenager. Last April, after working short stints for KS95 and WCCO, he drove a carload of equipment up to the University of North Dakota-Fargo to provide a flood-relief radio broadcast for the entire region. Because there were no rules and no corporate imperatives, the experience was addictive. More than ever, Stroud was convinced there was a need for low-budget, community-oriented radio, even though the FCC refuses to license any signal under 100 watts. "After all, it is our airwaves," Stroud says.

When Stroud read that Carlson was having trouble convincing Chancellor Broadcasting to run her political ads, an on-air light went on in his head. Recalling Carlson's birthday performance, he approached Sweeney with a proposition. During the last seven days of the mayoral campaign, Stroud would hold court over a private, pirate FM signal called Ballot Box Radio. There would be alternative music, community-oriented news, and--most importantly--time aplenty for Carlson to speak her piece to an 18-to-34 year-old crowd worth, in Sweeney's estimation, around 5,000 votes. Now Carlson was intrigued.

"Barbara's a gut-level, visceral politician," Sweeney says. "And she felt this was just another way we could get to a group of people who may be disenfranchised from the political process."

The price tag didn't hurt either, Sweeney admits. Even if the Carlson campaign wanted to buy a media blitz in the waning hours of the campaign, they wouldn't have the funds. Ballot Box Radio gives Carlson a heretofore unavailable opportunity to be heard on her own terms, in her favorite venue, for about $500--just enough cash to help Stroud buy the nuts and bolts necessary for an underground signal.

And so, on October 29, Ballot Box Radio will power up from a secret locale. Minneapolis listeners who turn their dial to 95.7 will be treated to an eclectic mix of trip hop, swing, and alternative pop from folks unofficially aligned with Americans for Radio Diversity. They'll also hear people-on-the-street interviews, a late-night show called Twilight Contemplations (REV fans will dig the "mystery" DJ), and a whole lot of Barbara Carlson. Besides taping a number of segments, the radio-ready candidate will also be available via cell phone to take calls on the air.

 

Both Stroud and Sweeney emphasize that this is an independent station, that Carlson is merely participating in a public forum to which other candidates will be invited. Sweeney has involved a downtown Minneapolis law firm to make sure everything is on the up and up. "In order to avoid any potential claim that the Campaign is compensating this broadcaster in an attempt to influence the mayoral election, your agreement with the broadcaster should provide that the Campaign is purchasing specific blocks of air time for paid political advertising," attorney Charles R. Shreffler advised Sweeney in an October 20 letter. "Other programming should be directed by the broadcaster, not the Campaign."

The main reason for these official precautions is that Ballot Box Radio is just the kind of station that rankles the bureaucrats at the FCC. Not only won't they license a micro-broadcaster, the corporate-friendly body stubbornly maintains there's no room on the Minneapolis airwaves for another station. Under current law--which is being challenged around the country on Constitutional grounds--an operator of an unlicensed station could be fined up to $10,000, imprisoned for up to a year, and be forced to forfeit all communications devices.

Wearing a natty black outfit accented with a strand of pearls, Carlson is a tad overdressed for Stroud's makeshift radio studio. Still, sitting next to host DiNanni she looks more relaxed, more in her element than she has in weeks. "My God, after those stuffy debates this is so much fun," she enthuses. "This makes the whole thing worthwhile."

The white-walled room is barren except for two five-and-dime microphones, which have been wired through a cheap chandelier, a couple of gray sound barriers, and a cracked speaker, which Stroud--sitting in another cramped room--uses as a studio monitor. The morning's one-hour session will be one of many Stroud hopes Carlson will tape over the next few days.

"Welcome to Ballot Box Radio, an alternative radio experience," DiNanni says, with the dipping swagger of a pro. And suddenly Carlson the communicator replaces Carlson the candidate. Instead of coming across callous she's comically cynical, refreshingly inquisitive. Instead of sounding like a pre-packaged fiscal conservative, her views on everything from homosexuality to grunge music come to the fore. She isn't mean, she's mad.

In 20 minutes the two cover everything from street crime to charter schools, First Amendment rights to Minneapolis's "impotent" police chief, Robert Olson. At times, the conversation threatens to fly off the tracks. It never does. Carlson thrives on the unedited chaos. Next door in the studio, Sweeney is bouncing with glee.

"Sure," he says, "we'll offer the mayor equal time. But her people are so friggin' constipated it will be Saturday before they figure out what's going on. And then they'll have to have at least a half-dozen meetings to figure out their next move."

TEFLON NORM: On Sunday, October 19, the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran an evenly argued, painstakingly reported business package by staff writers Aron Kahn and Dan Browning, documenting the behind-the-scenes details of a deal being negotiated between Mayor Norm Coleman and Minnesota Mutual. Among other things, the lead story--titled "Beneficial Yes, But is it Mutual?"--pointed out that helping Minnesota Mutual build a $65-million office building downtown could end up costing the city $39 million. Kahn and Browning also analyzed the politics of the deal and allowed ample space to both Coleman supporters and critics. "We're pretty sure the city negotiated a better final agreement because they knew our stories were coming," Kahn says.

On cue, the PiPress's editorial board went to bat for Coleman the following Tuesday, encouraging the City Council to vote for the project and pooh-poohing the idea that the mayor and his supporters in the business community were playing politics two weeks before the mayoral election. In an online version of the piece, written by Editorial Page Editor Ron Clark, Coleman's deal was deemed "irreproachable"; interestingly, in a later version published in the newspaper, the wording had changed to "reasonable." Clark also called out Kahn and Browning by name and in the online version concluded it was hard to find "the beef" in their story. "The intention of the piece was not to throw cold water on the work the reporters had done," Clark says. "It was to bring a different perspective."

 

Kahn maintains the move hasn't caused any bad blood between the editorial board and the newsroom, agreeing that the business of newspapers is to create an engaging dialogue. What he graciously doesn't say is that Clark's poorly written editorial, which flat-out ignores facts reported in its own newspaper, is only engaging because it reveals the edit board's boring biases.


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