Tom Barnard, seriously

  • Article by: NEAL JUSTIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2010 - 9:26 AM

Minnesota's radio king Tom Barnard is known as a crude loudmouth. Turns out, there's a lot more to him than his brazen words.

Nearly every morning, Tom Barnard rolls out of bed, pulls on a T-shirt and gym shorts and takes a 90-second commute to work by way of the stairs.

His listeners may think he's about to drive over to KQRS headquarters to yuk it up with the rest of his morning show crew, but actually he's heading to his basement. On the way, he passes the neglected comforts of his spacious home -- a poker table he has never used, a pool table he has racked only twice, a popcorn machine that hasn't popped since his daughter left for college. He sinks into the only chair in his closet-sized studio, which is littered with bottles and tins of glucosamine, aspirin, antacids, arthritis pills, lozenges and fish oil. He checks the fax machine, goes over the guest lineup and boots up a Tiger Woods golf game to keep him occupied during breaks.

Only then is he ready to transform into Minnesota's angriest man.

For more than two decades, Tom Barnard, morning show host and voice-over artist, has ruled the Minnesota airwaves with a steady stream of potshots at stupid criminals, even stupider politicians and anyone who doesn't salute the American dream.

Now, at 58, he is showing signs of cooling down and growing up. In the past year, he has quit drinking, lost weight and opened up to the media for the first time in two decades. He even announced that he planned to leave his show.

But change, apparently, doesn't come easy for a man with an acute case of shyness, a distrust of those outside his inner circle, a deep-seated guilt over his rags-to-riches story -- and a father he can never forgive.

'Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

Barnard, sitting in his living room with his wife, was quoting one of his favorite philosophers -- Dr. Seuss -- and reflecting on the idea that he's entering a new stage in life.

On a November evening, just a few weeks since he made his on-air revelation that he would be leaving the show in two years, Barnard talked while his one-eyed Jack Russell terrier yipped for attention. Barnard said he had a plan for a different kind of radio show, a brainier, bolder program, one far removed from the current routine, which relies heavily on wisecracks about criminals and politicians, celebrity chitchat and sexually charged banter.

During one recent four-hour program, for example, the objects of Barnard's ridicule included credit-card companies, overweight employees at Disney World, a St. Paul neighborhood that captured a goat, a Minneapolis Peeping Tom and Tiger Woods.

His notion of a new, more sophisticated concept was strongly supported by his close friends, who want fans to get to know the intelligent, thoughtful Barnard whom they adore.

"Maturity, I guess," he said. "Finally."

But it didn't take long for him to slip back into old habits. Despite his plan to change, the slightest affront can still trigger an obscenity-filled tirade and earn someone a permanent spot on his ever-growing enemies list. And then there's the radio show. Within six weeks of his announcement, Barnard had changed his mind.

He wrote on his Facebook page that he'd be at KQ "until they fire me or I drop over in my tracks." The posting went on to say that a friend had told him, "If there is any proof in this world that there is a God, it is the life you have because of the unwavering support of K.Q. listeners. Only an idiot would walk away from that."

On the other hand, it might have been difficult for Barnard to leave, even if he had wanted to. He signed a 10-year deal in 2005, which means he's under contract until 2015. Quitting early would have meant the station could have kept him from working anywhere else for three years.

Barnard's boss and friend, Mark Kalman, doesn't believe his superstar was ever serious about leaving.

Barnard, he says, would have been miserable doing a niche show with a smaller audience. "He couldn't stand losing," the KQRS president said. "It would be like when Michael Jordan went to play baseball for a few years. It wouldn't bring him satisfaction."

•••

It's no coincidence that Barnard's spacious Golden Valley home overlooks the north Minneapolis neighborhoods where he grew up. His rough-and-tumble childhood is never far from his mind.

By Barnard's estimation, his family moved 43 times in the 1950s and '60s, staying one step ahead of the rent collector. His father, Robert, was often unemployed, and his mother worked as a waitress at various neighborhood diners. At one point, a young Tom slept in a dresser drawer. There were lengthy periods when the only food on the dinner table was fried dough and watermelon.

"I always laugh when people say, 'Well, he's kind of a racist,'" Barnard said. "My only problem with that is, we were the poorest family in the neighborhood. Blacks had a lot more money than we did."

He has memories more traumatic than growling stomachs and cramped quarters. One afternoon his father beat him -- nearly to death, he says. The 8-year-old's sin: Playing in the attic with a friend.

"My older sister and mother kind of dragged him off of me," Barnard said. "That's the only reason he stopped." Barnard said he was his father's regular punching bag while the other six siblings -- four brothers, two sisters -- went untouched.

"I think it was because of my general attitude. I'd call him on his bull. No one else would."

Once, his grandmother got into a heated argument with Robert in the kitchen and called him "crazy." He responded by wrapping his hands around her throat and choking her. She grabbed a frying pan and whacked him on the head. The authorities came, dragged him out on a stretcher and took him to a mental hospital, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic and underwent shock treatments.

Bobbi O'Brien, Barnard's older sister by seven years, remembers things a little differently. She said that the beating in the attic was the only time their father assaulted Tom, and that it happened the same day Robert was hauled away.

"Quite frankly, Tom wasn't picked on anymore than the rest of us," said O'Brien, a Minneapolis psychologist. "But I think he felt more persecuted by him."

•••

Critics aren't likely to feel much sympathy for Barnard's back story. Over the past 25 years, Barnard and his morning crew have outraged many community groups, including Native American, Hmong and Somali organizations, which say too much of his humor is insensitive and often racist.

"It's very ignorant stuff," said Clyde Bellecourt, a member of the Communities of Color Council of Many Nations, which protested the station in 2007 after someone on the show suggested that incest was frequent on the Red Lake Indian Reservation. Bellecourt helped negotiate an on-air apology, but he says it was less than sincere.

"I think what we had to say went in one ear and out the other," he said recently. "It's just an entertainment thing for him."

Leslie McMurray, who helped found Community Action Against Racism in the aftermath of comments about the Hmong community, believes that Barnard has tapped into an ugly component of society, one that triggered death threats after she criticized the show in 1998 and organized an advertising boycott.

"I'm convinced from that experience that there is a painful element in our community that's motivated and supported by hate speech," McMurray said. "People are emboldened by the kind of drivel coming out of KQ."

Barnard loyalists argue that detractors should separate the man from his on-air persona.

"I don't know if people understand that his job is entertainment," said David Valentini, a defense attorney and longtime friend. "He likes to take a topic to the edge and run with it."

Barnard said that playing an exaggerated version of himself is just good showmanship. "If I talk to people on the radio the way I am now, nobody would listen," he said. "Even if I told jokes, it just sounds boring."

Still, Barnard's wife of 25 years, Kathryn Brandt, said he gets rattled by the criticism. "He cries every time you give him a mushy card. He just teared up during an episode of Dr. Phil," said Brandt, who is also the mother of their two grown children. "Tom doesn't like to have somebody not like him, but it's OK for him not to like certain people."

Most folks in Barnard's world fall into two distinct categories: Saints and scum. But there is one ambiguous relationship -- and it may be the most important one in his professional career. Ever since Terri Traen joined the morning crew in 1989, her naive takes, corny jokes and nonsensical asides have become a staple, as have Barnard's what-in-the-world reactions. Some of the funniest moments of the show consist of the host's long pauses after one of her non-sequiturs.

"There's nothing worse than male-female cohosts that love each other," said KQ's program director Dave Hamilton. "Let 'em play. That's real."

Barnard is hesitant to comment on the other members of the morning team, whom he rarely sees. For the past four years, he has broadcast either from his Minneapolis basement or from his winter residence in Palm Beach, Fla., while the rest of the cohosts are in the KQ studio near Dinkytown. They get together once a year during KQ's annual meet-and-greet with fans in Las Vegas. The lack of face-to-face contact adds to Traen's curiosity and nervousness about how the show's megastar really feels about her.

"Does he really not like me?" she wondered aloud. "I think sometimes he does, and sometimes he doesn't. I don't think I'd be here if Tom really hated me. Sometimes when I get on his nerves, I don't know it, and sometimes when I think I have, I haven't."

• • •

When he was about 15, Barnard came home from school one afternoon and didn't leave for an entire year. O'Brien believes it was triggered by an incident at North High School when some bullies jumped him and stole his jacket. Barnard said there were other factors, but admits that the theft tapped into a sense of rage he didn't know he had.

"I wanted to track each of these idiots down, one by one, a la Charles Bronson, and kill them. Not harm them, kill them," he said in an e-mail. "It brought out a part of me I found to be terrifying. ... From that incident I could have become a very violent person ... or I could do what I did, become a person who tends to be quite private in real life, and outspoken in public life."

Barnard said he used the seclusion to study people's behaviors through books -- most notably J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" -- Richard Pryor albums and Beatles music.

One thing he was dead set on: He would never go hungry again.

"Mother used to tell the story that when I was 4 years old, she was getting me dressed for Sunday mass, putting on my little sports coat, and I looked at her and said, 'Mom, when I get older, I'm not going to live like this,'" he recalled.

He got his wish. While working as a record representative for Capitol Records in New York City in 1979, he started lending his deep, rumbling voice to commercials. By 1982, he was in such demand that he could quit his corporate gig and concentrate solely on voice-over work for such high-end clients as Burger King, Cargill and Nike. His return to Minneapolis, and radio work, coincided with his wife's pregnancy.

Barnard's success at KQ is almost unheard of in a fair-weather industry always eager to hop on the next trend. At one point, he was hooking one in every four of Twin Cities listeners between the ages of 18 and 34, a nearly unprecedented accomplishment.

"This is an industry where people are afraid to buy a house because they don't know how long they're going to be there," said Michael Harrison, founder and editor of Talkers magazine, which tracks trends in the radio business. "It's very hard to get on top, and the fact that he's been there for a very, very long time is enormous."

• • •

One day in 1973, Mark Kalman, KQRS' current president and general manager, clocked in as a salesman for Minneapolis' WDGY and noticed a stranger in the hall. The guy was wearing ripped jeans, an old coat, no socks and untied shoes. Kalman assumed he worked for a snowblower company that shared the building.

"The receptionist told me it was actually a guy interviewing for a job," he said. "That was Tommy."

That encounter launched a relationship that strengthened over the years, with Barnard often found sitting on Kalman's front porch stoop after work with a six pack, waiting for his friend to get home.

"We'd visit all night," Kalman said. "I had two little kids at the time and I'd have to say, 'Tommy, the sun's coming up. The kids are waking up in an hour. You have to go home.'"

Another vital connection Barnard made in the '70s was with Hamilton, the KQRS program director and the closest thing Barnard has to a guardian angel. Hamilton was working at KDWB at the time and, on impulse, invited Barnard to a Twins game.

"He didn't say much, but as we started to get into the game, we got louder," Hamilton said. "The guy behind us started complaining. Tom turned around, pointed at him and said, 'You'll. Shut. Up. Now. Buddy.' I realized instantly that I had a friend for life."

Barnard's anti-authority persona was developed during those early years, particularly during a stint at KSTP, where, under the nickname "The Catman," he got into late-night screaming matches with Chicago export Dr. Grady Brock. He also had a memorable stint at WDGY, where he ticked off management by mumbling the weather reports.

Disillusioned with radio and desperate to make more money, Barnard left the market around 1979 to work at Capitol Records. Hamilton's repeated attempts to lure Barnard out of New York failed -- until Barnard found out that Kathryn was pregnant. Within an hour, Barnard -- determined not to raise a child in a Manhattan apartment -- agreed to return.

It wasn't the warmest of homecomings. "The Tom and Dan Show," co-hosted by Dan Culhane and featuring an up-and-coming sportscaster named Mark Rosen, almost immediately turned off station owners.

"I was in Florida when I got a call from the boss -- think Michael Scott from 'The Office' -- who was screaming, 'It's! Not! Working!'" Hamilton said. "At the time, no one was offending authority. They were afraid of complaints."

Hamilton persuaded the brass to stick with the show until the ratings books came in. The stall paid off. By the end of the year, the KQ morning slot had doubled its audience.

• • •

"God said to Abraham kill me a son. Abe said, man, you must be puttin' on."

Barnard is belting out his favorite Bob Dylan song, "Highway 61 Revisited," outside his country club while puffing on half a cigar, his dessert after a meal of steak and carrots. It's a familiar scene to those who know him as an engaging, worldly dinner companion, someone eager to engage in topics that cover everything from the state of the Supreme Court to the charms of "The Big Bang Theory."

Then there's politics. Those who imagine he's a blue-blooded Republican may be surprised to learn that he voted for Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale. He's been a vocal supporter of Tim Pawlenty, but he also praises Amy Klobuchar for being "very sincere about serving people."

"Everyone thinks I'm this severe right-wing guy, but I'm not a severe anything," he said. "I don't like Bill Maher and I don't like Sean Hannity. They're a couple of loudmouths."

Barnard has invested in three local restaurants, including the upscale Mexican restaurant, Barrio. He's also quietly helping to build homes for base soldiers in Mississippi. He has donated most of his impressive wine collection, about 3,000 bottles, to the SMILE Network. Valentini, whose wife runs the Minnesota-based charity, estimates that the gift should finance surgery for 400 children born with cleft lips and cleft palates.

"I think he doesn't mention it because he knows what it's like to be on the other side," said Fox 9 News anchor Jeff Passolt, a regular contributor to the radio show. Memories of those darker days flooded back in 2008 with the death of his mother.

Theophila Barnard was a deeply religious waitress with "a rosary in one hand and a cigarette in the other," said her daughter. O'Brien said Tom and his mother formed a special bond after the attic beating. "I think she felt more protective of him after that," she said.

O'Brien said it took a lot of cajoling to persuade her brother to attend her funeral. "He didn't want to face it," said O'Brien, who hasn't seen her brother in nearly a year, in part, she thinks, because he doesn't like to be reminded of those early years.

Barnard's changes have been both subtle and dramatic. He joined Facebook in September and has nearly 4,000 fans, providing commentary during Vikings games and answering every hurrah sent his way.

Over the past two years, he has shed up to 120 pounds. He quit drinking last Easter, a day that marked the one-year anniversary of his mother's death. Friends believe that both the show and the man have mellowed.

"I think you grow up when your mom dies," said comedian Louie Anderson, a longtime friend.

But Brandt, his strongest supporter and most astute critic, thinks he's as grouchy and ornery as ever.

It is possible that Barnard's rage could have been soothed by the final encounter with his father. But the script didn't go according to plan.

• • •

Robert Barnard didn't completely disappear from his son's life after his trip to the mental hospital. For a few years, he popped in and out of the house, finally settling down in north Minneapolis. Occasionally, Tom was called upon by local bartenders to come pull his father out of saloons where he had started fights. Barnard would joke his dad out of trouble and lead him outside.

In 1982, the phone rang one last time. Barnard, who was 30 then, got a call from Mercy Hospital. His father was dying and wanted to see his son. No one else.

Barnard tells the story in hushed tones. On the drive over, he wondered: Why me? Maybe, finally, he wants to tell me he loves me. Maybe, finally, he wants to say he's sorry.

When he arrived at his father's bedside, he found an emaciated, fragile figure, tubes running down his throat. Unable to speak, Robert picked up a small chalkboard. Forming the words took forever, but finally Barnard got to read the message his father had scrawled to him: Get me out of here.

"I took his hand and said, 'Can't do it, poppa,'" Barnard said. "He died that night."

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431

  • related content

  • Photo gallery: Tom Barnard, seriously

    Thursday March 11, 2010

    Tom Barnard, seriously

  • THE TOM BARNARD FILE

    Wednesday March 10, 2010

    Job: Host of the "KQ92 Morning Show" and voice-over artist whose clients have included Best Buy, Burger King, McDonalds, Cargill, Home Depot and Nike Golf. Won the 2006 Marconi Award...

  • Tom Barnard, during a live broadcast of the KQRS Morning Show from The Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in November 2009.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close