Tom Mischke still pioneering format-free radio
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.
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.
"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.
"It got scary," Mischke says of "The Dead Air Show." "I thought, 'Am I pushing this too far? Am I messing with my career?' I don't know any station that thinks it's a good idea to have dead air."
In the radio market, major or minor, dead air is the programming director's nightmare. It is the antimatter of the broadcast world, the dark and dangerous stuff of black holes, capable of swallowing the favor of advertisers in a single gulp. Go across your radio dial, twist the knob from one end to the other, and you won't hear a moment's silence. Even the unoccupied frequencies hiss and squeal. But Mischke's relationship with dead air, like any meaningful affair, has always been intimate and dangerous.
"When there's dead air," he says, "the ear is trained to believe something is amiss. Something is wrong. And the longer the dead air, the more the sense that whatever happens next is even more important to listen to. But maybe there is nothing haywire. Maybe there is nothing to anticipate. With dead air, the listeners have lost their moorings. Is he even there? Who's 'he'? Maybe there's nothing there at all. It's the great abyss."
At another station, the stunt would have likely earned a pink slip. But at AM 1500, it only legitimized Mischke's reputation as a maverick savant.
"I couldn't believe it," Konrad remembers. "I stood in the kitchen. Two hours. The whole way. Just marveling at what he was creating. It was as if he were the silent conductor of a telephone orchestra."
"I'm told no other radio station in the country would have allowed it," says Mischke. "At KSTP, there really weren't any rules. The rules were simply the legalities. Whatever the FCC says don't do, don't do. Otherwise you're on your own. They give you all the rope in the world. Make a career out of it or hang yourself."
Mischke's outlaw approach to broadcasting doesn't stop at his content and delivery. It breaches even the studio glass that separates a host from his producers and news people, a line revered in radio as inviolate. Nancy Fox has been AM 1500's late-night newsperson since 2002, and on her first day, Mischke stormed her studio, dumped a wastebasket over her head, and charged back to his post.
"He found a box of mini discs," she says. "Those were dumped on my head. He took an ice cube tray and dumped it down my back." Her voice is fond, even gleeful, when she says, "Behind the scenes, it was baptism by fire."
"There is nothing to prepare you for The Mischke Broadcast," agrees Jason McGovern, Mischke's current producer. Known on AM 1500's airwaves as High-Speed Chase, he too is subject to Mischke's every whim, from downloading outlaw country songs to winnowing arcane factoids from Google and Wikipedia. "No program director can give you a list of what you're supposed to do or what to be ready for. You just have to get it." McGovern pauses, then adds, "I got it."
For Mischke, the thematic arrhythmia is an unavoidable byproduct of his simultaneous infatuation with fantasy and his obsession with truth. "I have this idea," he says, "that most people are not normal, and that what really is happening is far more interesting, far more dysfunctional, and much more complex. At the same time, I got into radio with this incredible desire to do characters and do weird stuf. So I bounced all over the place, and to this day I suffer from that. My show suffers from a lack of parameters, an absence of format. But isn't that life? Isn't that real? Isn't it more honest? "
"People in this business get pigeonholed," says Konrad of Mischke's unlikely value within AM 1500's largely political lineup. "They have this impression of what a talk radio station is supposed to be. Mischke is our shining star of rebellion against the status quo."
IT'S 1980, the height of summer. Mischke is riding a boxcar from Staples, Minnesota, to Wolf Point, Montana. His riding partner is 10 years his senior, a friend of his older brother's, who has hopped trains up and down western Europe and traced the latticework of the American rail system nearly in its entirety. Now he is bound for Missoula. Somewhere south of Wolf Point is a cattle ranch where Mischke can work, and in Circle, a township of just over 600, there is distant cousinry who can take him in. So there are prospects.
After work on the ranch and a stay in Circle, Mischke and a couple of the cousin's kids head west, to spots where the American Rockies are at their most fearsomely climactic. A friendly engineer advises against the boxcars. Too dangerous, too much legal liability. So, for a stretch, they ride in the caboose, as cush and as cozy as Hindu cows.
At an unknown latitude, they meet a band of six. The men have Doberman pinschers, and not one of them is younger than 60. One is a Hell's Angel in colors, and he passes time by whittling a club for his son. Another is a man on the lam named Foster Daniel O'Keefe. O'Keefe has a mess kit, Mischke has a jean jacket. They trade.
The older men make a pupil of Mischke. Tell him how they picked apples in Washington for six weeks, took the money, and lived on it for a year. How they cashed in food stamps on bills that came to a buck eighty, or three ninety, and put the change toward alcohol and tobacco. About the luxuries of the grain cars, the Cadillacs of the rails. The heaviest cars, the smoothest rides. That the romance of the boxcar is but a mirage. Too rickety. Goes back and forth. Jostles the brain. But most importantly, how to handle the rail-yard bulls. How in the semis that ride on the flatbeds, you can hide up in the wheel well. Room enough for a man and his knapsack. What to do with the guys who might come to stop him. How to get away. How to hide.
The cartography of the Montana rail lines is an inexact science, and no one knows if they're near a reservation when they encounter a group of Native Americans, hostile and drunk and loitering near the tracks. With the train stopped, O'Keefe tells Mischke that their height advantage in the railcar will put the Natives' heads right at the lip, should they try to get on. "Kick 'em in the throat," O'Keefe advises. "Hard as you can." Mischke nods, though he knows it isn't in him. He's 17 years old.
"I'M TAKING ALL THIS IN," Mischke says now, "trying to remember everything. They took me under their wing. They protected me. They told me what they thought were important truths they wanted me to learn. They told me the whole story of the rails. And what I learned was that it was free. It was fun. It was easy. Like jumping on the back of a whale." He laughs. "It felt like the antithesis of school, and work, and all the things in life that seemed oppressing. Ultimate freedom."
Mischke is intensely concerned with liberty. He adores it, abhors elements of life that mean to curtail it, and always has. He was born September 19, 1962, and as a grade-schooler at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, he viewed school as a prison, the jailors hell-bent on quarantining him into intellectual cells much too confining. He imagined elaborate prison breaks, thinking himself a convicted innocent, a Steve McQueen in schoolboy navies. He sent threatening letters to the principal, constructed firecracker bombs, and blew through the crossing-guard flags on his bicycle. "Today they'd track you down," he says. "But then, they just thought, 'Who is this nut?'"
Mischke's distaste for the institution is still audible. It seems to sour in his mouth as he speaks. "The compartmentalization of it," he laments. "The rigidity of it, the lack of freedom in terms of one's own ability to think differently than the teacher. I was very aware early on that the world was so much bigger than school could present it."
As a teenager, Mischke enrolled in Cretin High School, St. Paul's most vaunted and disciplinarian Catholic military academy. It was 1977, a time when Catholic brothers and ROTC colonels were free to administer corporal punishment to the student body with all manner of implements—paddles, yardsticks, and bare hands. His time at the school was a tinderbox, in which sparks could be made against any surface, and by the end of his freshman year, Mischke's contempt for authority had become intractable.
In German class, a boy behind Mischke threw an eraser at the chalkboard. The professor misidentified Mischke as the culprit and backhanded him across the head. Mischke shoved his desk, ramming the professor in the legs.
Reporting to Sgt. Klaus Mahler, he made a stiff salute, asking instead for Colonel Klink. Mahler grabbed Mischke in a chokehold, lifting him off his feet. "That's not a place to be grabbed and picked up," Mischke says. "I felt I could be decapitated. They held me against the wall, and I thought, 'I know you get to keep your job by doing that, and I know that if I swing at you, I lose my position. But on a moral level, swinging at you right now, in the grand scheme, is not only warranted but is mandatory.'" He swung, and missed.
Another day, while goofing in the hall with a fellow student, he was grabbed by a passing professor who smashed Mischke's head against a nearby locker, shouting in steady time with the blows, "WE! DO! NOT! DO! THIS! DO! YOU! UN! DER! STAND!"
"And the honest answer," he says, "was no. I knew that if I answered no, I'd get the basketball treatment again." He pantomimes the dribbling of a ball while knocking his temple with a knuckle. "But I was more interested in the honest reaction at that point. So I said, 'No. I do not understand.'"
The beating continued. Mischke chuckles. "Eventually, much like McCain, I succumbed under torture."
His tenure at Cretin was short. He graduated from Highland Park High School and pursued his journalism degree at St. John's and St. Thomas universities. His father, Maurice Mischke, was the publisher of The Highland Villager, a man who subscribed to four daily newspapers and 20 magazines a month. It was a home in which periodicals by the hundreds were carefully archived by date, the way a druggist might arrange his newsstand. Life. National Geographic. Time. Stacks upon stacks of The New York Times. By the age of seven, Mischke was printing his own newspaper, titled TSM, for "Tommy's Super Magazine," from a makeshift bedroom office.
"It had a medical section," he says. "It had a sports section. It had illustrations. It had news stories. And I distributed them at the dinner table. It was a weekly."
But the lawlessness of TSM was the sole property of a curious childhood, not commonly rewarded in the rat race of freelance writing. That adult world proved as hostile to Mischke's appetite for perverse and complex truths as did the corridors of Cretin. As a young freelancer for the Reader, City Pages, and the Highland Villager, his stories bounced back. His pitches were shot down by his editors. The work paid peanuts.
"In writing, it was the same thing," he says. "I was going to editors saying, 'What about this?' 'Yeah, Tom,' they'd say. 'Great. Maybe do that in a diary. In the meantime, could you go check out this city council meeting?' I was hoping that what I wanted to do and what people were ready for would come together. I was looking for absolute freedom in a world that wasn't going to give it to me."
For Mischke, that world wasn't in the classroom, nor on the floor of the Reader. It rode on rails. And while wintering as a scholar and a freelance writer, he spent a decade of his summers in boxcars. He discovered Butte, Montana, and fell deeply in love with a place where the spirit of the law was upheld while its letter burned like flash paper. Where, beneath the streets, a subterranean Chinatown sat virtually unknown. Where traffic lights were casual suggestions. And while the romance lasted, the boxcar was his ferryboat.
"It was so removed from the world you would have been in otherwise," Mischke says of that time and place. "High school, home, laws, restrictions. Here's this monstrous thing, and you're on it. The moon is out. It's two in the morning. You're going across the prairie." He sips from a pint of Summit. "Ultimate freedom," he repeats.
IT'S 1986. Talk radio is in a strange middle passage between Murrow and Limbaugh. It's a time before Hannity and Savage, before Clear Channel's imperial bootprint, before XM radio whisked Stern from the dial to digital, and KSTP's 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. host is Don Vogel. He's a voice and song man, a blind man, an impressionist who once sold newspapers on Chicago street corners by impersonating presidential candidates and common passersby.
Tommy Mischke is 24 years old, a seasonal hobo who has already spent seven summers on the rails. A student of journalism at St. Thomas University, he pilots a delivery van along the University Avenue Midway and tunes in this Vogel fellow, who wields KSTP's broadcasting power with the wild precision of a drunken master.
Mischke stops at a phone booth and, obeying some impulse, calls the station. It's call-in radio, after all. Why not? To his surprise, Vogel himself is suddenly at the other end, and what lies between them is wire and 50,000 watts of broadcast power.
Mischke screams. A noise of pure panic. He hangs up the phone and returns to the van. Even for Vogel's show, which is a harkening to the slapstick comedy of earlier epochs, this is a wholly unexpected moment, an unforeseen breach, the very thing for which the eight-second delay was invented.
Mischke turns up the radio. Perhaps he expects the call to be cut from the broadcast entirely. Perhaps he expects Vogel to deride the call as a crank, to humiliate this anonymous miscreant.
"THAT COULD HAVE BEEN the end of it," remembers Mischke. "But he laughed. He laughed." Mischke's wonderment at his own good fortune still has a showroom shine. "Somehow, he realized I hadn't planned it, and I stood there in awe of what had happened. It would have been equivalent, in my mind, to sitting next to Johnny Carson, making a funny face, leaving, and having it be allowed to occur."
He became known as the Phantom Caller. Weekly, his calls would arrive, and Mischke, under a miscellany of aliases, would deliver rapt, airtight bits, always in character. He played an oilman, an elderly Valentine's Day shopper, and roles ever more exotic. The act appealed to Vogel's own beginnings and approach to entertainment radio, and when Vogel left AM 1500 to go to a Chicago talker, Mischke was invited into the studio to be "shot."
"He was a man of a thousand voices," says Mischke. "And one by one, on the last day, he became these people and, with a Gatling gun, killed them. I came in in a tuxedo and a ski mask." Referring fondly to Vogel's uncanny knack with sound effects, Mischke adds, "He lined me up against a wall. A Gatling gun destroyed me."
They shared a goodbye, and Vogel extended his appreciation, inviting him to call up Vogel's show should Mischke ever find himself in Chicago.
Mischke balked. This seemed the closing act to another strange operetta in his life, and to prolong the exeunt with curtain calls seemed foolish and inappropriate. "I figured, that's it. I'm done."
But Vogel returned to AM 1500 in 1991, an uncommon event in the broadcasting industry, after a five-year leave, and so did the Phantom Caller. A scant three months afterward, Vogel suggested to Steve Konrad that Mischke be his on-air sidekick, and that he be paid.
It was Steve Konrad who hired Mischke, at the rate of $20 per show. It was Mischke who renamed the show The Afternoon Saloon. Within three years, Mischke had his own show. And on January 3, 1994, less than a decade after his first call to AM 1500, it was Mischke, alone before a microphone in the KSTP studio, hosting the debut installment of The Mischke Broadcast.
For his first month on air, Mischke ran a remarkably straight show, in line with the format of the station. He conducted interviews with authors and addressed news items pertinent to the day. But the shoe wasn't fitting right, and over a lunch on Grand Avenue, Mischke timidly expressed his despair.
"It was on a Wednesday," Konrad recalls. "He'd devoted the entire week to racism. He was doing a two-hour show each night with guests in to talk about racism. His contract was coming up."
"This isn't fun," Mischke told Konrad.
"What are you talking about?"
"It would be fun," Mischke said, "if I was doing what I wanted to do."
"Well," Konrad said, "what do you want to do?"
Mischke described a show unfettered by the banner headline, where he could sing and play, where he could entertain the notions he found most captivating without interference.
"Well," said Konrad, "why weren't you doing that?"
Mischke looked up, stunned. "You mean," he said, "I can?"
"And that was that," Konrad declares. "We've never looked back."
Nine to eleven. Eight to eleven. Eight to ten. A two-hour show, then a three-hour show, then back to two. From dusk to deep night, Mischke occupied innumerable time slots before he was stationed as the 10 to midnight man. "It has to be some kind of record," Mischke remarks. "At least for a single station."
It was in the late-night hours that Mischke confronted a new specter. Mischke was in his mid-30s, and it arrived unannounced in a wave of physical malfunction, a mysterious constellation of strange pains. Pains in his stomach, beneath his jaw, aches in the small of his back. Migraine headaches. There were emergency-room visits. Prolonged hospitalizations. Teams of doctors, panning for fool's gold, screened him for exotic diseases.
"It came and went, and we didn't know why," says Mischke. "It would hit. I'd take a month off work. It was a year of that before, finally, I had somebody tell me that it was something other than a physical ailment."
The clinical term is "masked depression," an insidious form of the mood disorder that manifests itself not just in hopelessness and despair but in psychosomatic, intensely vivid physical symptoms. Mischke spent a year in and out of hospitals before a diagnosis was finally made, and the personal toll was enormous. It cost him months of airtime. He would vanish from the airwaves, often without explanation, provoking wild fears among his listeners that he had died. It cost him syndication with Jones Radio, a deal that would have broadcast him to millions of listeners nationwide were it not for a mental collapse in March 2002. And it cost him his most valued asset—his awe for the world.
"You could have given me the most beautiful photo," he says, "the most beautiful painting, the most beautiful concerto, and I'd know logically that it should be moving me to tears. But everything was shut down. The cords were pulled from the sockets. Numb. I'd walk outside and there'd be this incredible sunset. It would be warm. Winter was ending. And I'd know the joy was on the other side of the glass, but I couldn't get there.'"
In the nighttime slot, Mischke's show was at its most wildly uninhibited. It was at such an hour, and only at such an hour, that he could give his home mailing address over the air to a 94-year-old harmonica virtuoso. That he could call 411 and engage the operator in an unwilling interview. That he could telephone his own show, a full 10 minutes late, hitching a ride from his stalled pickup. That he could spend two full hours in total silence, recklessly throwing his callers into an impromptu symphony.
But in the very world of uninhibited liberty that Mischke had spent so many hours and miles seeking, it was here that he was at his most vulnerable. "When I get a tape of the late-night show," he says, "I don't hear great radio. I hear a lot of callers dealing with a lot of pain. A lot of that pain is entertaining to other people. People say, 'You were great at night because the drunks called you.' Well, they were drunk for a reason. It's no great celebration when I listen to it now."
As KSTP's lunch-break man, he arrives at the AM 1500 studio shortly before noon and leaves at 2 p.m. His workday is bookended by broad daylight, and though he still struggles with depression, the diurnal shift in his day has had a positive effect on him. "I'm a much more grounded person now," he says. "When I left 10 to midnight, I left more than just night radio. I left a stretch of my life with a lot of misery. I'm out of darkness and into light."
In daylight hours, his show has become more topical. Joe, the drunk, doesn't call anymore. Undertaker Fred is dead. And the pranks that made his nighttime show such a private thrill are now out of the question. He spends five hours in preparation for each day, a practice that Vogel, who died of cancer in 1995, scorned. The pockets of dead air have now been caulked by a vastly expanded bank of daytime callers. And though his show still clatters like a caboose going too fast around a hairpin bend, Mischke admits that the change was inevitable.
"It's like a guy playing football in his 20s and 30s," says Mischke. "In his 50s, he's not a great football player anymore. But maybe people shouldn't be looking for him to run 90 yards for a touchdown. Maybe he's not an athlete anymore. Maybe they should be looking for him to write a book. I started radio in my 20s. I'm in my 40s. I'm just not the same guy."
It's September 2008. Mischke sits beneath a Dubliner umbrella, and autumnal clouds are rolling in on a cold breeze. He is in a beige cargo jacket. His hair is a graying, Seussian tuft, stirred by the wind.
"All of us in radio are generally people who didn't get enough attention growing up," he says. "We're probably not all mentally well. We're probably pretty thin-skinned. We probably have an incredible need and desire to be liked. We'll say we don't, and we lie when we say that."
The intimacy that exists between a host and his audience is a perilous intimacy, and it has a curious habit of leaving a host empty, falsely romanced by an ethereal brotherhood that hardly exists when the dial is turned off.
"In a lot of ways," he says, "we reserve our intimate self for the strangers listening. You're in this room and you don't see them. You begin to think you're with another part of yourself. Even if you do think you're talking to somebody, it's not an audience of thousands, it's one person. And that person is alone in their room. And who cares what one person says to another person? No one's listening."
But it's that very intimacy that Mischke prizes, that gives radio its edge on the other media and shelters it from the internet, from television, from Twitter feeds and blog loads that descended on the AM band like a pack of assassins. "What else is like that?" Mischke wonders. "Does a painter paint a painting and think of that one person looking at it alone at night in the dark?"
"When I drive in the country in Wisconsin," he says, "there'll be nothing but nature, farm fields, and corn. And then I'll pass a tiny little church. Next to the church are 24 headstones. And I think, that really holds up humanity as important. Just 24 people, and nature. Then you get to something like Arlington National Cemetery and it starts to feel like we're all just ants, and these guys all just got stepped on. The idea of radio addressing just one person makes that one person really important. All of a sudden, being a human being is a big deal."
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