The Diva of talk
Sometimes Katherine Lanpher's voice is little-girl bubbly, so excited it seems perfectly plausible that at any moment she might break into song. Sometimes it's sharp and shrill as a chainsaw, cutting off a rambling speaker. Sometimes it's a whipped-cream tone that coos at authors, drawing out a poet's words, a novelist's meandering thoughts.
Most often, however, her voice is loud, self-deprecating, punctuated by a sudden, braying laugh that seems to slash physically through the air.
Lanpher likes to talk. She likes to talk to public-policy experts, philosophers, or whoever might be her guest on a given day on Midmorning, the newsy weekday talk show she hosts on Minnesota Public Radio. She likes to talk to vendors at the St. Paul Farmers' Market about heirloom tomatoes or petite cantaloupes or the best way to prepare goat burgers. She likes to talk to her friends, to her fans, to journalism students about writing, to children in her neighborhood about the economics of garage sales.
Hers is far from what you might imagine as a typical public-radio voice--that low, mellifluous, soothing tone that murmurs information. Lanpher's voice rises and falls expressively--to some, irritatingly. It is the embodiment of her personality, and, on the air, it becomes her presence.
After two years hosting Midmorning, Lanpher has come to moderate personal exchanges just like she would the show. Conversations with her are inherently exuberant, sprinkled with amusing anecdotes. As she chatters, the words seem eager, as if they're excited to spring from her tongue. Often she's the target of her own mockery. Her head bounces, her hands swirl emphatically--even, incongruously, when she's on the air. The curious reporter and interested talker melt into one soul in Lanpher; no matter who is supposed to be driving a particular discussion, it is she who elicits the information, pulling it out like a magnet.
It's an interaction she calls "a human moment," something she aims for with her conversational interview style. "I try and have a human moment within the first 15 minutes" of each show, she explains. "People want a real conversation. People respond to that. People unfurl like a blossom when they realize you've paid attention."
Her own human moments are a little more veiled. Close friends refer to her showmanship, to her near-diva personality that guarantees she'll be the center of attention wherever she goes. But she is savvy enough to draw a line between Katherine Lanpher the persona, and Katherine Lanpher the person, and she is careful to dribble out only as much information about herself as she chooses. And as always she recognizes that her public face--or, more accurate, her public voice, the one on the air every morning from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m.--is as much a creation of a listener's imagination as it is an outgrowth of her.
"People will swear they know you," she says. "And they don't. They swear they know your opinions, and they don't. You just have to accept that."
There are no visual cues in radio, so every inflection, every laugh, every raised or lowered voice seems freighted with an extra meaning--a meaning that turns out to be extremely subjective. Lanpher insists that people hear tones--an edge to her voice, a sarcasm in her quips--that simply doesn't exist. It's a quality of the medium that at once makes it engaging and erratic. When people listen to Lanpher, they create a vision of her in their minds. Frequently, it has little to do with the real, physical Lanpher.
It's Saturday morning at the St. Paul Farmers' Market, and Lanpher is here. Actually, she's here most Saturday mornings, armed with a shopping basket and a strict budget. But today she's performing a live mini-version of a radio broadcast; she's stationed at a demonstration booth, making an Italian bread salad with friend and frequent Midmorning guest Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of MPR's popular The Splendid Table. In a red shirt and straw boater hat, Lanpher, who is 41, looks like a grown-up version of Madeline, the small but fearless French heroine of the famous children's book series. Her auburn hair is trimmed into a neat bob, with a few flaxen highlights that match the glint of amber in her cat's-eye glasses. The pair cackle and mug for the audience--Lanpher's toothy smile a permanent fixture between plump and rosy cheeks.
Though Kasper is the star of this cooking show, several shoppers milling about recognize Lanpher, either by name or by voice. After the food demonstration, a few people rush up to her. One man asks how she researches programs, how much time she spends preparing.
Next, a woman approaches her. "I listen every day," she begins. Lanpher's stocky hands rise to her cheeks and she smiles, holding her breath while she waits for the next sentence. This is the point that invariably arises in every conversation with a stranger, when Lanpher learns what someone has inferred about her solely from hearing her talk. The woman continues. "What I love is when you laugh. It perks everybody up."
"I'm so glad you say that," Lanpher says with a chuckle, relieved. "Because I've got one of those laughs. Some people love it. Some people hate it."
Her laugh, her voice, her show. Some people love them, some people hate them. And that open discourse--the exploration of contradictory beliefs--Lanpher would argue, is precisely the point.
Bill Buzenberg knew immediately. He'd read Lanpher's writing in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where she worked for 16 years as a reporter and columnist, but it was at their first meeting in January 1998 that the idea came to him. A mutual acquaintance suggested to Buzenberg, who had just left his position as vice president of National Public Radio's news division to join MPR as news director, that he get to know Lanpher. She came into his office at MPR and launched into what he recalls as a quick-witted chat, a bit of verbal Ping-Pong. "It was just kind of an electric conversation," he remembers (adding, for the record, that he thinks her laugh is terrific). She would be a great call-in show host, he thought.
The timing was fortuitous. Lanpher had grown tired by the pace of her thrice-weekly column and was looking for a change. Buzenberg had just arrived in St. Paul after 19 years at NPR, where, among other things, he helped create the national call-in show Talk of the Nation. MPR had a similar program, a call-in show called Midmorning. Its host, Paula Schroeder, had left a couple of months earlier, and John Rabe was shepherding the show on an interim basis. Though Lanpher's only radio experience had been a small-time evening show on KSTP-AM (1500), Buzenberg was willing to take a chance on her, just as he had done in Washington with a man named Ray Suarez.
An overhaul of Midmorning was in the works. Ratings weren't stellar, and its format had long been inconsistent, varying wildly from live call-in segments to taped interviews. MPR wanted to make it a more topical, all call-in program.
Buzenberg's notion of bringing in Lanpher met with resistance from his new MPR colleagues. She was hardly a conventional choice for the spot. She had almost no radio experience, and what she did have was highly commercial. Some at MPR couldn't believe Lanpher could make the switch from opinionated columnist to inclusive moderator. Buzenberg, however, pushed hard for her.
"She was incredibly bright, witty, she thinks really fast. She was a real journalist. Those were my criteria," Buzenberg says. "It took some convincing of people. It took some time."
Eight months, in fact. Lanpher started her new public-radio career in August 1998.
The transition was indeed difficult for Lanpher. "You can't do radio overnight," Buzenberg stresses, noting that the technological aspects alone are complicated, never mind the pressure of live broadcasting. "People don't understand what a skill it is to carry a two-hour live radio show on--no matter what." But Buzenberg was patient. After all, even Suarez had to get over a rocky start on Talk of the Nation. But by the end of his first year listeners thought he was great. By the middle of his seventh year, when he left the show, people didn't think they could live without him.
Lanpher, who usually seems to wear courage like a comfortable sweater, recalls her terror at first. She would work ten-hour days, six days a week, and arrive at the studio before 8:00 a.m. because she was so nervous. "It used to be that if we got knocked off the air I looked like an electrified mouse," she says, pulling her hair so that it stands on end. "Now I know what button to push....I scramble a lot better than I used to."
Whenever she talks about Midmorning, Lanpher is quick to point out that it's not her show, it's a team effort with producer Cari Dwyer and assistant producer Gabrielle Zuckerman. Together, the three choose and research topics, book guests, and come up with questions. "As a columnist, you're kind of a lone wolf," Lanpher explains. "At first I thought, 'I have a show,' but that's not how it works. We have a show. I'm not responsible for every topic, every hour, every question. It's a little less of me hanging out there."
It's also a big change for the newsroom goddess who, she admits, used to get down on her knees and beg editors not to cut her stories. "My copy is my flesh," she recalls saying in one of her more hyperbolic moments.
Star Tribune columnist Kristin Tillotson, a good friend, says that while Lanpher enjoyed her column, Midmorning seems a perfect fit. "This job is the one she's been meant for all along," says Tillotson. Though the column was well received, Tillotson says, Lanpher--who originally planned to study theater when she enrolled at Northwestern University--"is a little bit more of a show-woman than that. She is such a quick wit; some of the things she comes back with just make my jaw drop. And she's just as good with the policy wonks as she is with the gardener."
Off the air, Lanpher, Dwyer, and Zuckerman share an office. Harsh fluorescent lights beam down on stacks of books and a sea of reminders scrawled on Post-it notes. Together the three decide what topics to pursue each day. Shows are generally booked the day before; sometimes they are slated a few days ahead of time, sometimes the topic is changed as late as 8:45 a.m. if there's a hot news story. The nine o'clock hour is usually based on current events, says Dwyer, who has produced the show since June 1997. The ten o'clock hour varies a little more, expanding to author interviews or discussions of birdwatching. "Not every front-page news story is a call-in show," she says. And "there are things that matter to people that aren't necessarily on the front page."
With only two hours of broadcast time each day, Midmorning can't cover everything. While the team has a collegial relationship with Gary Eichten and his crew at MPR's other current-affairs show, Midday, there is competition. Midday follows Lanpher's program each day and its crew may well swoop in and grab a topic Midmorning was planning for later in the week. "We're probably each other's best competition," Dwyer says. "We only have so much time."
Sometimes, however, the Midmorning team miscalculates, and those same two hours can seem like an empty eternity. Lanpher readily admits that shows don't always go as planned. Topics she finds fascinating--like stem-cell research--have proven too arcane for listeners. But if the issue is race, or transportation, the phones don't stop ringing. "Light-rail transit," she pronounces. "I've never seen people more exercised."
On other occasions, the discussion veers off in directions she didn't anticipate. One show, she remembers with a shudder, was aimed at the topic of children and drugs, yet most of the callers droned on about legalizing drugs. But she doesn't dwell for long on broadcasts that go badly, and if a guest is a dud, "You just burn the name out of your memory." She tries to advocate for her listeners when planning shows. A recent show with Harold Bloom, Yale University professor whose recent book is called How to Read and Why, for instance, wasn't to her liking. "I'm not sure I would book him again," she muses. "He's an esteemed literary critic, but he was very condescending to callers."
Of course, Lanpher herself can be curt with callers from time to time. She has no qualms about scooting them toward a point if they tend to ramble. "There are critics who don't like parts of her personality and her brashness," admits Buzenberg. "She sometimes jumps into the conversation more than the people who are conversing want her to or the people listening want her to....But it's moving. It's conversation. She doesn't suffer fuzzy stuff very long."
It's that brashness, Buzenberg says, that worried some of his colleagues. Lanpher has a larger-than-life personality, and to some, that personality doesn't fit with the genteel, even-keeled image of public radio. But Buzenberg disagrees. "Personality is okay for that job," he says. "It's a good thing. For some people, she has too much personality. Some people think it's not quite public radio. People have much more credibility on the radio if they, in fact, are themselves." Sure, he allows, Lanpher's voice can be high-pitched sometimes, though she's worked hard to make it more even. "Some people in public radio are an acquired taste."
But it's a taste, at least, that a lot of the original skeptics at MPR have grown to savor. Pride buoys Buzenberg's voice as he talks about the way colleagues have warmed to Lanpher's program. "People say, 'I didn't believe you, but this has been a good thing.'"
Lanpher's alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m. She leaves her Portland Avenue home and goes for a brisk three-mile walk up and down nearby Summit Avenue, time to clear her head and stretch her joints and muscles, which cause her constant, low-level pain due to years of repetitive stress injuries. After her exercise, she has time for a quick shower before sprinting off to work.
Around 8:30 a.m. she strolls into the newsroom on the third floor of the headquarters on the corner of East Seventh and Cedar streets in downtown St. Paul. She prints out her scripts--the introductions and sample questions she wrote the day before--brews a cup of tea, and goes into a little room and "warbles" to get her voice ready for the air.
Just before 9:00 on a September morning, the Midmorning crew is springing to life. First Lanpher enters the booth, standing at the guest mic, bantering on air with the host of Morning Edition, the news show about to conclude that day's broadcast, about her agenda for the next couple of hours. Off air again, she stretches her legs, bends her knees, shakes out her shoulders. Once the hourly news update gets rolling at 9:00, she takes over the host's chair from the departing newscaster, gathering up her books, papers, tea, a thermos filled with hot water and lemon and a special cushion she uses to comfort her back.
She arranges herself in front of an array of technology that looks like it could outfit the Batcave: a clock, a multi-line telephone, a console with countless buttons and levers, a computer keyboard and screen on an extending arm. She puts her headphones on, still standing up, as she does for much of the program. Normally, if she has a guest in the studio, she'll take these last few minutes to chat, going over some of the material they'll discuss or showing an author a particular passage she'd like him to read.
This morning, however, her guest comes in with just seconds to spare. In a blue sweatsuit, flanked by his press secretary and bodyguard, Gov. Jesse Ventura saunters through the newsroom, into the booth. As he sits down, Lanpher has just enough time to say hello before the familiar beat of the Midmorning theme signals the start of the show.
Producer Cari Dwyer sits in a separate booth next door, working with a sound engineer to make sure the program runs smoothly. She answers the phone and prioritizes callers for the program, trying to ensure a range of questions, comments, viewpoints, and geographical representation. She enters all this information into the computer system, the live link between Lanpher and the production booth. Through instant electronic messaging, Dwyer proposes questions she thinks Lanpher should ask, seeks clarification on confusing points, and occasionally quips with the host. Every now and then, the crew ends up having to resort to wild gesticulations and rolled eyes through the glass window.
It's a little more of a circus this morning, because Ventura is a show unto himself. Dwyer pushes just to maintain order and get the program on the air. A news camera is there, shooting footage of the governor through the booth's window. The topic is property-tax reform, sprinkled with discussion of his latest book, Do I Stand Alone? Going to the Mat Against Political Pawns and Media Jackals. Lanpher is comfortable with Ventura, in part because they used to work together at KSTP-AM. At times, however, he tends to bark at her, quickly raising his voice and interrupting her as she tries to clarify his statements.
And because the show's topic is complex, Lanpher will almost certainly have to insert herself into the conversation. Ventura's proposal is for the state to increase its share of school funding from 70 percent to 100 percent, a move he says would lower property taxes and increase accountability. His complaint is that today the state contributes only 70 percent of funding for schools, yet dictates the way school districts spend the 30 percent of the budget they generate locally.
From the start, the discussion is awash in numbers and bureaucratic jargon. "Why pay for just 70 and mandate the other 30?" Ventura asks. "Let's have the state, since they're already controlling 100 percent of that money to begin with, let's make it accountable on both sides."
Lanpher tries to clarify. "Eh, see, now we use that pesky word control," she begins. "If they're already controlling 70 percent of it..."
"No," Ventura cuts in, "we're controlling 100." They go back and forth, Lanpher attempting to make things listener-friendly. Ventura, however, just raises his voice. "Katherine, we're doing it right now."
Lanpher tries to rein in the conversation. "I, I, I know," she says. "But I guess what I'm saying is, To a lot of people, controlling money means controlling curriculum, controlling the way you teach. I think that word..."
"Well then, what's the difference?" Ventura cuts her off again. "We're doing it right now."
Ventura's answer clarifies little. "Because if we take the 100 percent and say we're paying for 100 percent, then from that point on any additional money that is used in schools will be clearly the result of the local jurisdiction."
The next day, the discussion of property taxes continues, this time with state Sen. Larry Pogemiller, the DFLer who chairs the Senate's K-12 education budget committee, and Republican state Rep. Ron Abrams, who chairs the House tax committee. This hour, Lanpher is trying to further decipher the governor's proposal and gauge reaction to it in the Legislature.
Dwyer sits typing questions to Lanpher, who sees them and nods. Why won't creating sales taxes on food and clothing work? Which tax would the lawmakers support increasing? It's a spirited program, as Lanpher tries to break the two politicians out of sound-bite mode.
The show is peppered with callers. Late in the hour, Lanpher turns to Roy, who's calling from Duluth. "I had four points," he begins.
"You know what?" Lanpher interjects. "Why don't we trim it to two. Make
"Well, okay, it was real quick," Roy says, flustered. "But real quick, I'll go through a couple real quick."
"You just lost a point, Roy," Lanpher snaps. "Come on, let's go." He rushes through his points, and Lanpher turns to her guests for comment.
The second hour slows to a snail's pace. Poet, novelist, philosopher, and farmer Wendell Berry reads from his new novel, Jayber Crow, in the deep, dulcet voice of a true Southern gentleman. Assistant producer Gabrielle Zuckerman has swapped seats with Dwyer and sends notes to Lanpher that all the callers "loooooove" Berry. Praise is fine, Lanpher types back, but it'd be nice if callers had some ideas to contribute to the conversation.
After the program, Lanpher races around the newsroom, as agitated as an athlete coming down off the high of a long run. "Don't get me wrong," she begins. "I don't want to get between the callers and this man. Who wouldn't love him? But do you want to hear an hour of fawning? It's not great radio."
The first hour was the kind of mad-dash program where Lanpher scurried to make sure all the arguments were made; to "make a complex subject legible to people with their hands in the sink doing dishes, or driving." And then came Berry. "Everything slowed down to a drawl and I hadn't slowed down. The first ten minutes I still had the same voice, when what I needed was my author voice."
Though Lanpher says she doesn't consciously think about her voice when she's on the air anymore, she certainly did when she came to MPR. In fact, she worked with local voice coach Shirley Venard to learn how to better modulate her pitch for radio conversations. "Women tend to go into upper registers," Lanpher notes. "My register is pretty broad. I can go high or I can go low. They were trying to get me to stay low so as not to alienate listeners with my voice. You want to keep your voice in a register that doesn't distract people from the content of the show.
"As long as they let me laugh," she concludes, "I'm fine."
By about 2:00 p.m. every day, Lanpher takes her stacks of research and leaves the MPR building, driving an old white Volvo sedan back to her house. At home, in good weather, Lanpher will attend to her reading on the porch. She'll sit in a wicker chair with a pen and a stack of Post-its that she uses to make notes in her books--writing in the books themselves is a sacrilege, she explains.
Lanpher's 1914 home, looming and gray, is perched on a little rise back from the quiet street. Inside, the wood tones of the floors and furniture create an almost gloomy atmosphere in the living room, complete with a grand piano in the foyer. Though she doesn't play--"It's the world's most expensive card-holder," she quips--she has it tuned for parties, so friends can perform. Paintings of greenery and flowers adorn the walls--a friend's artwork. Lanpher herself once took a botanical drawing class, only to discover she had no talent for it.
The heart of the house is the kitchen, warmed with shelves of European cookbooks, ceramic pitchers bearing French phrases, a framed rooster made from seeds and kernels--Lanpher's own elementary-school rendition of crop art. The personality of the kitchen seems to trail out the back door, into a lush garden filled with tomatoes, herbs, flowers, and, in one corner, a rustic model of the Eiffel Tower made from sticks. The skeleton is bare; Lanpher can't seem to get plants to climb along it.
Lanpher bought the house in 1996 with her then-husband, Vincent Gracieux, an artistic director for the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. The two divorced about a year ago (Lanpher makes it clear that she'd rather not talk about that publicly), but the home is still clearly central to Lanpher's identity.
The front porch is the essence of the restored house. A vase holds graceful stems of gladiolus. Stacks of newspapers--she gets the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, and the New York Times--occupy a large table by the front door. On the weekend she sits here and watches the neighborhood live and breathe--the gardening at the house next door, the garage sale across the street, the mail carrier delivering junk mail. A steady stream of blond-haired cherubs comes to the door, seeking cookies from Lanpher, who, thankfully, has recently stocked up. At night she and friends sit out here, sipping a glass of wine, talking.
"It's like I live in Mayberry," she says. "This is why I haven't moved from this neighborhood. This keeps me alive."
Lanpher is a rabid fan of her adopted hometown. Though she's not a St. Paul native, she might as well be, having moved here 18 years ago. The first person in her family to go to college, Lanpher attended Northwestern University and then earned a master's degree in American cultural history at the University of Chicago. Then she took a reporting job at the Pioneer Press.
She is a child of the heartland; born May 27, 1959, she grew up in Moline, Illinois. Her parents still live there, and Lanpher calls them once a week. And, not surprisingly, she comes from a family of yakkers, from her father's sense of humor to her mother's sly wit. Her relatives, she says fondly, "had great laughs; big, open-mouthed... When they thought something was funny, you knew it."
It's in that spirit that Lanpher laughs now as she says her life is remarkably boring. Her friends say the Midmorning job has changed Lanpher's lifestyle. "It did turn her from a night owl to an early bird," Tillotson says. Lanpher tries to be in bed by 11:00 p.m.; if she's entertaining, she sets a kitchen timer on the porch to remind her when the evening should be over. A typical weekend involves trips to the farmers' markets in both St. Paul and Minneapolis, perhaps a block party with her neighbors. Lanpher likes to play cards, cook, garden in the summer, cross-country ski in the winter. She rarely watches TV (her only set is ancient and she chooses not to invest in cable) unless Ventura is on the late-night talk-show circuit, in which case she tunes in to hear what he says in case it comes up on her show.
Regrets are few in Lanpher's life, though it certainly hasn't turned out the way she imagined. At 41, she'd expected to be married with children, still working at the newspaper. Instead, she's working on accomplishing goals she'd always had in the back of her mind. She'd like to write essays and fiction, and this fall she's taking a fiction-writing seminar at the University of Minnesota. "I think there are times in our lives when we want to tell stories, and I happen to be in one of those times," she explains. "I've weathered major career change. I've weathered a divorce. I've weathered turning 40. At some point, you look in the mirror and it's put up or shut up."
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."
With authors and artists, on the other hand, Lanpher often must work to coax them into sharing their thoughts, allowing listeners to reach into every corner and crevice of their imagination. "You want such a good conversation, so everyone feels part of it," she says. "To make something so intimate apply to so many people... that's an art."
The idea of discovering truth through conversation is hardly new. Perhaps shows like Lanpher's are today's example of a Socratic dialogue. It is the interplay of opposing beliefs that builds upon itself, creating, in theory, some sort of revelation about ourselves and the world around us. For this to succeed, spontaneity is key. "You want candor on the air," Lanpher explains, adding that she wants to showcase the broadest possible spectrum of ideas, even if they may seem offensive. "We have racists who call in," she says. "That's good. They're out there."
Having a forum for this kind of dialogue is essential, notes Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, who has been a guest on Lanpher's show. "It's the glue that binds our whole society," he asserts. "Conversation, discussion, informative exchange, debate. That is the mechanism by which we discover who we are. To be able to listen in on quality conversations or participate in them as a caller is an act of citizenship."
However, Kaplan, also director of the Norman Lear Center, which studies the convergence between journalism, entertainment, and economics, says this kind of program is most likely to be found on public radio, and is therefore likely to attract an already self-selected group of listeners.
Still, radio may be the ideal vehicle for this type of discussion. "Radio has its special qualities," Kaplan says. "Intimacy is one of them. If you only hear a voice, you are more attuned to the inflections in it. The sense of eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation arouses in listeners a particular mindset that is different than people sitting around a brightly lit TV set.
"Talk radio is not necessarily a tool of mindless distraction," he continues. "It's a tool of engagement. We listen to talk radio because we want to be involved."
Lanpher echoes the sentiment. "There are so many short segments in the world," she says. "On public radio, 55 minutes of conversation--that's a tall drink of water. People get to finish sentences. People get to complete thoughts." And, from time to time, a show, or even just a few minutes of dialogue, will bloom gracefully, blissfully, into that coveted human moment. That's what Lanpher searches for every day, and listeners get to ride along.
"Good morning, welcome to Midmorning. I'm Katherine Lanpher..."
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