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KQRS host Tom Barnard talks about 'welfare radio,' hosts with foreign-sounding names

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Paul Mecurio, the standup comic who serves as a warm-up act for Stephen Colbert's studio audience, was in the Twin Cities last weekend for a run of shows at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy in the Mall of America.

Mecurio promoted these gigs with interviews on local TV and radio stations. Which ones, though? 

It's a pretty boring question. And yet, it's the one that was on Tom Barnard's mind. The KQRS host had Mecurio on that station's Morning Show on Thursday, and apparently found himself curious about the rest of the comedian's schedule.

As Barnard told his audience Friday morning, he texted Mecurio to learn which radio station he'd be on that day. 

"KFAI," Barnard said. "He's going to KFAI" -- before Barnard can even get out that sentence, a co-host has started cackling -- "which, if you don't know, is a public radio station. And, I just looked -- they don't really have any... ratings."

There's some laughter. A co-host says: "Hey, I know what they're doing! 'If you want [Paul] Mecurio off the air, pledge...'" 

"I'm going to call [Mecurio]," Barnard says, "the second I think he might be awake, and say, 'I understand you're doing welfare radio now.'" 

Barnard then makes clear, with some pride, that he doesn't know much about KFAI: Where it is on the dial (90.3, a co-host informs him), or where the station operates out of. "Their studio used to be, like, in somebody's basement... but I think they've moved to someone else's living room." 

A co-host turns the conversation toward the political: "Their tagline is 'Radio without boundaries.' Now let me see how hard it would be for me to get on there with a Trump supporter, some-type-deal. I bet there'd be some boundaries."

Back to Barnard: "In my life, in my entire life, I have not listened to welfare radio ... a grand total of an hour. It's just not for me."

Barnard then tells a story from years back, when he had to record some audio that could be transmitted by satellite. "The only place that had a satellie," Barnard begins, before apparently blanking on the phrase "Minnesota Public Radio." Instead, he says this: "The big one, the big welfare one that the woman -- grab-ass... Garrison Keillor. What was he on?"

"NPR," chimes in a co-host, incorrectly. 

"NPR," everyone repeats, still wrong. Then they try guessing Minnesota Public Radio's call letters, a conversation that takes up about 15 seconds of live air time on commercial radio.

Barnard tells a story about visting MPR's station, with its "big sign" (which he apparently neglected to read), and getting told not to touch the microphone. Then it's back to KFAI. 

"I should've known [KFAI]," he says, "because I listen to ... Abdirizak Bihi all the time." 

Barnard plays up his difficulty pronouncing the name. This gets a laugh, and Barnard decides to turn the funny-sounding names into a bit.

"Then there's Afsheen Foroozan, Filipino American National News. Then Ahmed is on, with Sangam. What is 'Sangam?' Then Ahmed Wassie, Voices of Ethiopia." 

Co-hosts are alternately cracking up or chiming in. Then Barnard comes across a few simpler names, ones he recognizes: Al B Ware, Al McFarlane, and Barb Abney, formerly with MPR's 89.3 the Current and Go 96.3. 

Barnard keeps scrolling down the list. "God, they got tons of people workin' there! I mean I'm not kidding you, there's like 50 people workin' there!" he exclaims, before guessing the station has "like, four people that get paid." 

Then Barnard says: "You notice, ladies and gentlemen, that I'm not ridiculing them, or making fun of them. Because it's probably where I'll end up someday." 

A few seconds after clarifying that he's not making fun of anyone, Barnard says: "Mukhtar Thakur. Yeah, same to you." 

After expressing amazement one more time about how many people are listed on the station's contributor page, Barnard softens. "God bless 'em, man. They have a voice, so that's good. They wanted a voice, they have a voice, that's good for them. I'm glad to hear it. That's one great thing about radio, there's so much you can -- you can do anything with radio. That's why radio will never go away completely."

Barnard's right, you really can do anything with radio. He, for example, once said Hmong immigrants should "assimilate or hit the road," while also joking about a 13-year-old mother who killed her baby. Another time he and co-hosts riffed about the suicide rate among Native Americans. And just the other day, Barnard read off some names that sounded foreign, and therefore funny, as his co-hosts chuckled along dutifully. 

Of course, one could read this recent story about KFAI, if they really wanted to learn more about the station. But why, at this point, would anyone expect Tom Barnard to start learning? 

Barnard was right on his second point, too. Radio will never go away completely. Some of it should.