Coda (for now) to the Mischke saga

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David Brauer, of MinnPost.com, has posted a two-part Q-and-A with Tommy Mischke, the recently-deposed radio humorist-genius of KSTP in St. Paul. (Previously on this subject here, here, and -- eight years ago in an Atlantic article - here.)
(Mischke, as "shown" in our magazine story in 2000:)
mischke.jpg

The really surprising part of the interview is Mischke's description of exactly why he was fired "for cause" and with no warning, severance, benefits, phase-out period, etc. That's in Part 1 of the interview. In Part 2, he talks about the economic future of radio, the choices available to people like him who don't fit the standard AM political-talk mold, and various other challenges that will sound uncomfortably familiar to people in print journalism. Worth reading for culture-of-media purposes even if you've never heard of Mischke and don't care about life in "good old St. Paul, big-time Minneapolis" as Mischke always refers to "The Cities" on his show.

Actually, one other point. I hadn't looked at my article on Mischke for lo these past eight years, but I did so just now. After the jump is one passage that tries to convey the on-air effect. And, for another long interview with Mischke from three years ago, go to the MischkeMadness site here.
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From "Mischke's Moment," in the Atlantic eight years ago:

One way to describe the show is as a combination of The Onion and The Simpsons.... A headline and subhead on a typical Onion story will read "AMISH GIVE UP. 'This Is Bullshit,' Elders Say." Mischke reports in similar terms about Montana's rejecting the federal 55 mph speed limit and replacing it with the speed of light. At its best the show is full of throwaway gags, doesn't strain for a laugh, and makes fun of everything without losing a cheery tone.

Mischke also cultivates the idea that the show's structure will be unpredictable from night to night: all call-in one evening, monologues only for the next few days, serious political discussion on one show, and all farce on the next. The night the final Seinfeld episode aired, Mischke "took himself hostage," yelling quite convincingly that he had a gun and would shoot if anyone stopped listening to watch TV. Two years ago he paused to consider what to say at the beginning of a program -- and decided just to keep quiet. For the next two hours he said nothing at all, until his usual "Sleep well!" sign-off at 10:00 p.m. When callers rang the station in confusion, he pressed a button to put them on the air without telling them he was doing so. Soon a spontaneous callers' show was in progress.

Mischke has worked as a singer and a piano player, and on many shows he bursts into song several times... Once, I lived a cliche and literally had to pull over because I was laughing so hard at a Mischke song. It was the twenty-third anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, on Lake Superior, and Mischke was conducting a phone interview with a leading expert on the incident. The expert, named Gumbinger, had been doing interviews all day and was momentarily flummoxed when Mischke, of whom he'd never heard, began singing questions to the tune and doggerel rhyme scheme of Gordon Lightfoot's song: "Could something like this ever happen a-gain? / Is there any way we can a-void it? / Should they be worried to-day, / up there near Whitefish Bay, / Or am I just getting all para-noid-ed?"

They kept it up, Gumbinger giving straight-man answers as if he were being interviewed on drivetime radio, Mischke coming back with stanza after stanza of plausible but ridiculous questions. "I never thought he'd stick with it," Mischke told me. "I thought he'd just hang up or blow me off, and I'm sure he would have if it hadn't been the last one of the day."

At unpredictable intervals Mischke opens the phones -- sometimes for serious conversation with regular listeners, but whenever possible for unintentional comedy from midwestern naifs... In "Gullible's Travels," a segment also on the CD set, he rings up a man who has just published an earnest letter to the editor about the risks hockey players run when they pile on one another after a win (think of those sharp skates!). Mischke says he's calling to break the news that the man's warning was all too prophetic: a player has just been decapitated in a pile-on at a college tournament. They're showing the film now on CNN!

"Oh, no," the man says in sympathy, a voice out of Fargo. Then Mischke switches to a tone of outrage, telling him that the newspaper apparently had the letter the previous day and could have published it in time to avert the tragedy -- "reminiscent of what happened with Pearl Harbor, when there was a warning early and it didn't get all the way up to FDR!" After about ten minutes the man begins to wonder if this is really a golfing friend of his, "Bocky," calling to pull his leg.

"You got me," Mischke says.

"Bocky! But you don't sound like yourself," the man says, puzzled.

"Well, I got throat cancer."

"Ah, Jeeez."

(Perkily) "Not much of it, but just enough to screw up the voice a little bit."


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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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