There’s something refreshingly retro about watching Alan Miller interview mayors, judges, sheriffs and senators for his public-access television show, “Access to Democracy.” The synthesized theme song and patriotic graphics that kick off each episode feel like a throwback to the late 1990s, when the show aired its first broadcast.
Pre-pandemic, before the 86-year-old host migrated to Zoom, Miller often sat across from guests in the soft armchairs of an Eagan television studio, coffee table between them. For a luxurious 27 minutes, their wide-ranging discussions took on a depth and nuance hard to find in an era where politicians tend to speak in sound bites, and our leaders, including the president, communicate in mere characters.
If it weren’t for the fake plants and bright lights and “Access”-branded mugs, you’d think Miller were chatting with a friend in his living room.
That’s not to say that “Access” interviews can’t get heated. Especially when Miller, a self-described Sanders-supporting “flaming liberal,” goes “hammer and tongs,” as he puts it, with frequent guest Pat Anderson, a former Eagan mayor who represented Minnesota on the Republican National Committee.
Chiding Anderson for her support of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, which treats corporations as people, he joked: “I just checked the maternity wards, and there are no corporations in there having babies.”
It’s a friendly style of sparring that can still end with both parties clinking pint glasses. And it feels especially rare when the schism between political viewpoints has become so vast, and the rhetoric so divisive, that those with opposing ideologies can hardly be found in the same room together.
In addition to being broadcast on Eagan TV, the show reaches more than 15,000 viewers via dozens of television stations around the state, the “Access to Democracy” website and YouTube channel. (“All things that I don’t understand,” Miller quips.)
Miller has hosted many of the state’s biggest names in politics — Dayton, Klobuchar and Franken among them — as well as officials who toil in greater obscurity, such as the state’s auditors and demographers. His interviews give viewers a sense of not only what the guests do and where they stand, but also who they are as people.
Miller came to his role as talk show host somewhat by accident, in 1999, when he was asked to conduct a television interview with a little-known Eagan legislator, Tim Pawlenty, then a representative in the Minnesota House.
“I didn’t have any idea after one interview that it would turn into this,” Miller admits.
A former lawyer whose accent betrays his Long Island roots, Miller was tapped for the gig due to his experience as a frequent guest on Joe Franklin’s quirky New York talk show. But Miller’s first turn in the interviewer’s seat left something to be desired. When he asked his wife, Sharon, for a critique, she said he had “all the charisma of a shirt cardboard.”
A competitive sort, Miller was determined to improve. Since then, he’s conducted more than 2,200 interviews for “Access to Democracy,” with the help of several other volunteers, including Sharon, who serves as the show’s producer. (The two met as employees of West Publishing, which brought them to Minnesota when it became part of what is now Thomson Reuters.) Her assessment of her husband’s performance has greatly improved: “Now Alan is relaxed, comfortable and confident, and has done a lot of research in case the guests get nervous or shy,” she said.
Miller typically tapes three interviews in a row, every other Friday, and often has shows booked several months in advance. He doesn’t give the guests his questions beforehand, and the interviews run unedited.
Miller has interviewed authors and doctors and restaurateurs. He occasionally goes on location to get tips from a local bowling pro, or conduct preseason interviewers with Twins players (where he once, famously, had the T.C. Bear mascot bite his head on-camera).
But the show’s primary focus is on appointed or elected officials. And Miller often features those about whom viewers know little, beyond the name recognition they have from lawn signs or ballots.
When Roger New became Eagan’s police chief in 2018, for example, the news garnered eight sentences in the Star Tribune. By contrast, Miller’s half-hour interview with New fleshed out the man behind the uniform.
Miller began by telling the story of how he was first introduced to New, when he found himself on the wrong end of the officer’s radar gun. On the show, Miller asked New about everything from the current rise in phone scams to one of his earliest calls as an officer, when he removed a huge snapping turtle from the road.
Filling a niche the major television stations were missing, Miller says, was a primary impetus for the show’s long-form, wide-ranging interview format. “You don’t get the depth of what these people are all about,” he said of mainstream coverage.
Elevating the discourse
In a special episode to mark last year’s 20th anniversary of “Access to Democracy,” Mike Ciresi, the lead attorney in Minnesota’s landmark tobacco lawsuit, described the show as being one of the few programs that gives people the opportunity to listen to someone without the rabid partisanship of modern times.
Speaking as a longtime “Access” guest, Ciresi said Miller’s approach enables people who may have a different opinion to listen to the other side and have a healthy exchange of viewpoints. “This program has been instrumental in elevating the discourse across a wide variety of issues,” Ciresi said.
These days, Miller, who refers to himself as a “senior geriatric curmudgeon,” is bringing in guest hosts to make sure the program can continue without him. (“I look in the mirror and I don’t see the guy who I used to,” he admitted.)
Among the rotating cast of interviewers is Dane Smith, a former political journalist for the Star Tribune and other news organizations, who was a frequent “Access” guest when he led the nonprofit organization Growth & Justice.
Smith said he has seen similar cable access shows come and go over the years and has been impressed by the Millers’ persistence. The respect “Access” has cultivated, he said, helps attract guests across a wide range of interests and pursuits.
“In this era of too much cynicism about democracy and our political process, Alan brings a constructive and principled sense of civic responsibility to the conversations,” Smith said.
Smith also noted that the work of the Millers, who he calls “unsung civic heroes and nurturers of the public good,” reverberates well beyond Eagan. It helps ensure Minnesota’s leadership in so many measures of civic health, from high voter participation to a knowledgeable electorate.