In August 1990, program director Alan Searle of KSTP Radio (1500 AM) asked me if I was interested in producing Barbara Carlson. Barbara was a new talk-show host, and her relationship with her current producer was not working out. Alan asked me to make a talk-show host out of Barbara.
I met Barbara in the station’s parking lot. She asked one question: “Are you tough?” I answered with false bravado: “I am tougher than you.”
This was a watershed moment. Barbara’s show sounded like something out of 1945. She loved big-band music. Her show was all imaged to this nostalgia. The program director told me to get her focused on men ages 25 to 54. I changed her opening music with the help of Scot Combs, adding punk and heavy metal. Barbara hated it all.
I wanted the show to feature Barbara’s bigger-than-life personality. Barbara, in the early days of the show, wanted to interview people, à la Larry King. She was not a great interviewer yet. She loved public radio. I had been listening to outrageous personalities like Howard Stern and Greaseman on cassettes. This was what she should be like. Barbara asked for the program director to fire me every other day for two years. My personal theme song was “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty. I sang it every morning on the way to work. I went to battle to help the show.
Barbara was fun and whip-smart. She could be nice, angry, funny and real. It was my job to harness this.
Frequently, there were show meetings with the program director, then Steve Konrad, and with the general manager, Ginny Morris. Barbara would lay out her grievances, and everyone would nod. Then Konrad and Morris would each tell me that I needed to understand Barbara’s needs. But I knew what the needs were. They were to win. After the meeting, there would be a separate meeting telling me to do what I had to do to keep the show on track. I did.
Barbara and I built strong on-air chemistry, in which I generally would tease Barbara. She started doing the hot-tub shows at this time. I hated it. It was strong visually, but not necessarily on the air. She would invariably ask me about how much I loved the hot tub. (I was never in the hot tub, of course.) Barbara was a reasonably heavy person. My standard answer when she wanted me to discuss the love for the hot tub was: “It challenges my heterosexuality every week.” Barbara would call me an asshole.
We built endearing relationships with cops, politicians, prostitutes and gang leaders. We were invited to the United for Peace Gang Summit. We were there interviewing gang leaders from all over the U.S. Some of these guys were quite frightening. I enjoyed it all. We were must-listening for politicians, cops and gang members.
My mind has been flooding with memories since Barbara’s passing July 9 at age 80 (“In politics and on the air, she was larger than life,” July 10).
Someone once asked me what it was like working with Barbara. My standard answer was: Babs has some sort of surgery every eight months, and we take our vacations at separate times. So we get breaks from each other. Barbara, hearing this answer, called me some obscenity and laughed.
Barbara’s relationship with her ex-husband, Arne Carlson, Minnesota’s governor from 1991 to 1999, was an interesting dynamic. Barbara strongly admired Arne. She was his biggest booster. Obviously, being the governor and having your slightly unhinged ex-wife with a talk show was never easy. I did tell the most Arne jokes, but Barbara’s gentle jabs probably cut the closest.
On July 28, 1995, I left KSTP and working with Babs. She and I had worked together for five years. We had ups and downs. We met amazing people. Our listeners were and are amazing.
I am still in radio. I have lived in Alabama; Greenville, S.C.; San Francisco; New York City; San Antonio; and now Little Rock, Ark. I cannot tell you how often I hear about that show. Barbara became the star I envisioned. I had little to do with it other than daring her to be herself on the air.
Losing Barbara leaves a hole in my heart. She was that crazy aunt who makes the holidays so much fun. If I can relate one thing I learned from her, it’s this:
Don’t be scared to be yourself.
Peter W. Thiele, of Little Rock, Ark., is a former producer of “The Barbara Carlson Show.”