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The Bit: How KFAN became America’s dominant sports radio station

From left: Dan “Common Man” Cole, Cory Cove, Chris Hawkey, Dan Barreiro, Paul Allen, and Paul “Meatsauce” Lambert

From left: Dan “Common Man” Cole, Cory Cove, Chris Hawkey, Dan Barreiro, Paul Allen, and Paul “Meatsauce” Lambert Bruce Kluckhohn

The secret formula

It’s all about “The Bit,” that special sauce that powered KFAN to national ratings primacy.

Last fall, 100.3-FM captured the highest market share percentage of any top-50 sports-talk station in the country, according to Nielsen. It was The Bit that transformed the Fan’s hosts into local celebrities, weaving the station into the fabric of Minnesota sports culture.

So... what is The Bit?

“I can’t explain it,” Gregg Swedberg, VP of programming for KFAN parent company iHeartMedia, says with a wily smile. “You either get it or you don’t. If you listen to the station, you know The Bit.”

The Bit is the lifeblood of KFAN, the pulsating web of in-jokes, phraseology, characters, and references spread across the station’s programming. It’s the singular culture of the Fan, honed and perfected by familiar hosts.

Paul Allen: “I still see sports through the eyes of a 15-year-old.”

Paul Allen: “I still see sports through the eyes of a 15-year-old.” Bruce Kluckhohn

When, after a Vikings loss, you hear shards of Paul Allen’s exploding heart clink against the mic, that’s The Bit. When Dan “Common Man” Cole devotes 30 minutes to Parisian porta-potties, that’s The Bit. When listeners self-identify as “rubes,” they’re flag-waving ambassadors of The Bit.

Tethered together by 100,000 watts, the Bit’s evangelists and true believers become family.

“It’s this kind of weird locker room,” explains Swedberg, who helped launch KFAN in 1991. “There’s not anything that goes on that doesn’t bleed into the other shows.”

The backbone of The Bit: four dynamic, distinct shows that’ve been liberated from giving a shit about sports.

“I don’t want to wake up and have somebody yell about the same goddamn sports takes,” says Cory Cove, co-host of The Power Trip Morning Show. “We gave up on that so long ago.”

‘Our real station is better than yours, and you’re going to realize it’

It wasn’t always that way.

In 1989, sports-talk royalty Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo essentially created the format from dust at New York City’s WFAN, whose owner, Emmis Communications, also happened to employ Swedberg. KFAN staggered out of the gate two years later in the Twin Cities.

“They didn’t have powerhouse or memorable shows,” says Mark Rosen, former sports director at WCCO-TV and a regular KFAN guest. “They kind of just filled a bunch of airtime.”

At first, the programming wasn’t fully dedicated to sports. That was Swedberg’s idea.

“I just kinda threw it out there,” he says. “In truth, for the first five years of the radio station, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We made more mistakes at this radio station than anyone I’ve ever worked for.”

KFAN’s nucleus of talent solidified throughout the ’90s. Chad Hartman, son of legendary Star Tribune writer Sid, was a founding member. He teamed with Dan Barreiro, the Strib’s no-B.S. columnist, in 1992. Cole came aboard in ’94, and Allen joined three years later.

Hartman, who was laid off in 2009 amid sweeping budget cuts from debt-saddled iHeartMedia, relished the Wild West atmosphere of early sports-talk. Other Twin Cities stations were “dismissive” of KFAN, he remembers, and WCCO execs weren’t shy about expressing that while trying to woo Hartman in the ’90s.

“It had this feeling of, ‘Well, now do you wanna join the real station?’” he says. “And I was kinda like… ‘Bleep them! Our real station is better than yours, and you’re going to realize it.’”

Acquiring broadcast rights to Vikings, Wild, Gophers, and (for a time) Timberwolves games helped ratings surge, as did a jump to the FM dial in 2011.

Paul “Meatsauce” Lambert: “You don’t wanna wake up and go, ‘Oh cool, they’re arguing about Gary Kubiak.’

Paul “Meatsauce” Lambert: “You don’t wanna wake up and go, ‘Oh cool, they’re arguing about Gary Kubiak.’

A major coup came in 2015, when The Power Trip crew—Cove, Chris Hawkey, and Paul “Meatsauce” Lambert—harpooned the great white whale of Twin Cities morning radio: KQRS’ Tom Barnard, whose smug cackles and casual xenophobia had dominated the ratings for decades. Toppling Barnard had been “the whole life mission” for The Power Trip, Cove says. Management even joked about a $1 million bonus for any program that could snatch his throne.

The Power Trip boys celebrated by getting Dairy Queen.

These days, KFAN continues to crush the Twin Cities talk market. Minnesota Public Radio is a distant second, according to recent Nielsen figures. WCCO, once a juggernaut, isn’t even close. The Fan wins basically every male demographic, with listenership that skews 90-10 in favor of men, Swedberg estimates.

Recently rebranded as SKOR North, 1500-AM is the only other Twin Cities sports-talker, though its ratings barely register. KFAN bosses say their crosshairs are fixed on top rock formats like KQRS and 93X.

“It’s a pretty major example of the sports-talk format in a big city that’s operating on all cylinders,” says Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers Magazine. “It has top-notch personalities, people that have track records, and diversity. It’s not just Xs & Os. It’s not just the Big Four sports.”

KFAN also has The Bit. The station didn’t hit its current gallop until all four marquee programs became fully invested in that ethos.

This isn’t Colin Cowherd and his dozens of syndicated sports yakker clones, endlessly bloviating about whether Brady and LeBron are the G.O.A.T. This is savvy, locally geared show business, Swedberg says, and the cross-pollination among shows makes the station feel like a formidable team.

Dan “Common Man” Cole: “I like to wing it, find the odd take. I’m always looking for the laugh.”

Dan “Common Man” Cole: “I like to wing it, find the odd take. I’m always looking for the laugh.”

“I don’t think anybody, even on their best day, thought it could become what it’s become,” Barreiro adds. “Originally, for me, it was this cute little add-on. But in the back of my mind I’d hoped it’d become bigger and bigger.”

‘That’s just who they are’

From 5:30 a.m. through 6:30 p.m., KFAN listeners experience emotional whiplash from program to program.

“Most sports-talk radio, the personalities are pretty interchangeable,” Cove says. “I don’t know if any of our guys are interchangeable.”

The Power Trip is a good-natured, bro-y, escapist clubhouse, where hosts rap about pop culture, bust each other’s chops, and play on-air games (including a recent IQ challenge). Cove is the pessimist, Hawkey the optimist, and Meatsauce the wildcard. Frequent guest Rosen plays the straight man, exasperated by the tornado of dick jokes and madcap improv.

“You don’t wanna wake up and go, ‘Oh cool, they’re arguing about Gary Kubiak.’ Who gives a fuck about Gary Kubiak?” Lambert says of the new Vikings assistant coach. “I’d rather mispronounce his name and call him Gary Kubrick. That’s why those ESPN shows are always changing. You can only yell so much. It’s just boring.”

Adds Hawkey: “The show only works because the three of us are together. My job is to get up in the morning and make my friends laugh.”

Cory Cove: “Most sports-talk radio, the personalities are pretty interchangeable. I don’t know if any of our guys are interchangeable.”

Cory Cove: “Most sports-talk radio, the personalities are pretty interchangeable. I don’t know if any of our guys are interchangeable.”

The Power Trip hosts are among KFAN’s least tenured, which speaks to how entrenched the station’s personalities are: Hawkey, a native Hoosier and professional musician, arrived in 2001; Cove (2002) and Lambert (2005), both Minnesotans, came on as interns.

“The continuity is so unique. That doesn’t happen,” says Hartman, who landed at ’CCO shortly after leaving the Fan. “You have to be good at what you do to last that long.”

Paul Allen, on the other hand, absolutely gives a fuck about Gary Kubiak.

The host of 9 to Noon is KFAN’s most devout sports lover, a manic mega-fan who vacillates between all-consuming joy and devastated agony, depending upon the Vikes score.

In ’98, Allen replaced Jesse Ventura, the wrestler/actor who’d just shocked the world by becoming governor of Minnesota. (“What am I gonna do if I actually win this thing?” Ventura asked a KFAN producer before the election, per Sports Illustrated.) Allen rose within the Fan alongside Jeff Dubay, his co-host who was fired in 2008 after being arrested for cocaine possession.

“I still see sports through the eyes of a 15-year-old,” says P.A., a Washington, D.C., native who also announces races at Canterbury Park and serves as the radio voice of the Vikings. “When it comes to legitimately feeling the losses and the wins, one of the things with which I’ve been blessed has been the ability to genuinely feel.”

Allen conducts his show with the easy-breezy swagger of an R&B singer, referring to guests—male and female—as “honey.” His metaphorical “Therapeutic Davenport of Love” lets Minnesota sports fans plop down for therapy sessions. Fellow hosts rib Allen—who’s friendly with Vikings and Wild brass—about his relentless boosterism.

In 2015, 'The Power Trip Morning Show' toppled KQRS’ Tom Barnard to become the highest rated local morning show.

In 2015, 'The Power Trip Morning Show' toppled KQRS’ Tom Barnard to become the highest rated local morning show.

“It resonates with the fanbases,” he says. “They know I care, and they know I respect that they care.”

By contrast, Dan “Common Man” Cole clearly doesn’t care.

His Progrum is an absurdist playhouse that mocks the very concept of sports-talk. There are no guests, and everything is undergirded by the Detroit native’s winkingly silly, often contrarian, and always amused “esoteric approach.”

Common is a mischievous cat. The notion of sports fandom is his ball of yarn, and he can’t help but playfully ridicule obsessive fans and, quite often, his co-workers. “Cole is a wonderful satirist when he’s cooking,” says Strib columnist Patrick Reusse, a competitor at 1500-AM until getting laid off last year.

Common will diagnose listeners with A.V.A.T.A.R. (Aggravated Vikings Anticipatory Traumatic Abandonment Reaction). He spearheads the annual Preposterous Statement Tournament, wherein laughable hot-takes from his peers are subjected to a bracket-style showdown. Perhaps out of necessity, the lifelong Detroit Lions fan embraces losing with gusto.

“I wanted to do a talk show that’s different, kinda make fun of the whole genre of breaking things down to the minutia,” Cole says. “Plus I’m not good at that. I’m a high school dropout. I like to wing it, find the odd take. I’m always looking for the laugh.”

Growing up in Chicago, Dan Barreiro was obsessed with radio, but he’d take a lengthy detour through newspapers before becoming KFAN’s drive-time star. “The Big Ticket,” as his KFAN brethren call him, spent 17 years as a Star Tribune columnist.

Newspapers were initially wary of sharing writers with sports stations, Barreiro says, but he was drawn to the romance of the medium in 1992. He turned out to be a natural.

“My friend Barreiro is dedicated to it,” Reusse says. “I have listened often enough to contend he does one of best radio shows in the country.”

Part of the draw is Barreiro’s magical ability to rant about anything and everything. He dubs his Bumper to Bumper program the “combo platter,” and no matter the subject—sports, politics, pop culture, civic to-dos—his powers of impassioned sermonizing have made him a ratings giant.

“Candor is what I try to give ’em,” Barreiro says. “For a lot of people that’s viewed as negativity. I guess I am pretty tough at times... I might be better after a loss than a victory. That’s just the way I’m wired. And most listeners, they don’t want Sid [Hartman] radio. A lot of ’em are pretty bright.”

Noticeably absent from the Fan: women and people of color. KFAN applied a Band-Aid to that problem last year when Carly Zucker, wife of Wild winger Jason Zucker, began hosting Overtime, an interview show that highlights the charity work of athletes. “There needs to be more women,” Zucker, the station’s first female host in about a decade, told Fox 9. Other than weekend talkers Trent Tucker and Henry Lake, the Fan’s stable of talent is also overwhelmingly white.

“Certainly, when we have openings, we don’t get as many females applying as males,” says station manager Chad Abbott, who started at the Fan in 1995. “We’re just trying to represent the Twin Cities the best we can – male, female, young, old.”

Additional success will require attracting more women, Swedberg admits.

For now, the men of KFAN succeed, in part, because they’re everymen, an apparent rarity in the sports-talk ecosystem.

“I’ve been around a lot of different levels of media,” says Matt Birk, the former Viking and Baltimore Raven from St. Paul. “Sometimes people say, ‘So-and-so seems like a great guy,’ and I’m like, ‘No... he’s an asshole.’ But those KFAN guys, that’s just who they are.”

A recurring refrain outsiders hear—and witness first-hand upon visiting the St. Louis Park station—is that Common really is like that. The Power Trip boys really are having that much fun. P.A. really is that euphoric and/or inconsolable. And Barreiro really is that exasperated.

“They don’t turn a switch on and become someone different when they’re on the radio,” Rosen says. “And that’s unique. I can truly say that.”

Freedom from sports, freedom from management

On a recent Saturdays with Sauce, Lambert relitigated the slaying of Biggie Smalls (tied with Chris Farley’s for saddest celeb death, according to Sauce), passionately soapboxed Super Bowl snack ethics (don’t be the guy who brings chips, he implores—bring Chinese!), and, almost reluctantly, indulged in some Xs & Os chatter prior to the world’s largest sporting event.

Outside of the hardcore sports of Allen’s 9 to Noon show, that’s pretty much the norm at the Fan. It’s lifestyle radio for guys, featuring ancillary night and weekend programs about the outdoors, video games, and fantasy football. In Minnesota, where snake-bitten fans have been historically subjected to either mediocrity or devastation, diversified subject matter is essential, Abbott reasons.

Plus the hosts wanna have fun. With the cyclical nature of sports—draft, training camp, game previews/recaps, repeat—the monotony can test the patience of host as much as listener.

“They almost proudly disparage sports a little bit,” Birk says, adding that Cole “knows nothing” about the subject. (This claim is disputed, but not by Cole). “It’s just sports. It’s not life or death. The other markets I’ve been in, it’s all sports all the time.”

Management encourages the free-wheeling approach, which is uncommon in radio, Barreiro says. Conventional wisdom dictates that “big, bad corporate radio bosses” stifle freedom more than newspaper bosses. In reality, Barreiro says he experienced more interference from management at the Strib than at KFAN.

“I’m sure if the numbers had sucked, there’d be a lot more pushback from these guys saying, ‘Hey, we love that you wanna talk Leo Tolstoy, but the Vikings are falling apart,’” he says. “We’ve had a unique situation here.”

Adds Cole: “There’s almost no leash at all. We’re like a dog park.”

This sentiment is echoed by almost everyone at the station, and cited as a key to its success. For Swedberg and Abbott, allowing hosts to run unencumbered is a pillar of the strategy. It fosters The Bit.

“It’s pretty clear that management has left the talent alone,” Rosen says. “There’s no, ‘Don’t rip on the Vikings too much because the Wilfs might get upset,’ or ‘Don’t rip on the Wild.’ You’re going to get a pretty brutal dose of honesty.”

The rubes are family

Swedberg has never seen a radio station that’s as intimately intertwined with the listenership as KFAN. They get The Bit, he says. They’re part of it.

“It’s not normal,” he chuckles. “It’s this culture, and we’ve been so lucky.”

Aaron Gleeman was a lifelong rube before scoring his own show.

Gleeman is editor in chief of Baseball Prospectus, an analytical website for hardball wonks. He was a prolific Twins blogger/podcaster when he first guested on Allen’s show. Billed as “The Twins Techie,” the St. Paul native is now a 9 to Noon regular, shooting the breeze with P.A. about everything from sabermetrics to Chinese food to his Timberwolves-loving mother. Abbott and Swedberg even turned Gleeman’s podcast, Gleeman and the Geek, into a full-blown weekend show.

“Other stations could do things like that, but they don’t. Yet the biggest station does,” Gleeman says. “I think the idea of a ‘KFAN family’ is absolutely right. They like their audience. If they think you can help make good radio, you’re in.”

Before he became a six-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ, Matt Birk was a sports-obsessed rube growing up in St. Paul.

“It’s fun because I’m one of the rubes,” he says. “I love sports, I love talking about it. You can’t talk about politics, you can’t talk about religion, but you can have strong opinions on sports.”

Athletes who claim they don’t listen to sports-talk radio are “lying,” Birk laughs.

With 13 affiliates reaching across the upper Midwest, KFAN provides one of the last town squares, where rubes can gather, squabble, riff, and, most important, feel like they’re part of the club. That’s something the intimacy of radio affords, and it’s not lost on the hosts.

It’s ballooned their social media followings, a flood of rubes referencing everything from that day’s show to some long-forgotten gag.

“There’s a connection with radio—more today than ever before—and I think people have a thirst for that connection,” Rosen says. “Radio offers that more than any other medium, especially this station right now. People feel like we’re really their friends.”

“As pretentious as it sounds,” Barreiro says, “we’re embedded in the local sports pop culture. Because we’ve been allowed to last.”