“The Late Debate with Jack and Ben” got off to an inauspicious start. At the beginning of the debut broadcast in April, one of the microphones didn’t work for the initial eight minutes. The first words uttered over the air were, “Do you hear me?”
The podcast recorder ran out of batteries just minutes into the broadcast. When the fledgling talk show hosts attempted to patch in their first guest — House Speaker Kurt Zellers — they couldn’t figure out how to work the phones.
“Everything that could go wrong did,” recalled Jack Tomczak.
“It was good to get it out of our system,” added Benjamin Kruse.
“When you start at the absolute bottom, there’s only one place you can go,” Tomczak reasoned.
In the six months since that ignominious debut, “The Late Debate with Jack and Ben” has emerged as a unique outlet for conservative political discourse. The program defies many of the conventions of talk radio. For starters it’s broadcast on a Ramsey-based radio station, Hope 95.9 FM, that otherwise plays Christian music 22 hours a day. In addition, it airs from 10 p.m. to midnight — a time slot more often associated with paranormal discussions than political discourse. The broadcast booth in which the program is usually produced is barely big enough to fit a guest.
“The Late Debate” also delves into the minutiae of state/local GOP politics with a rigor and depth that no other talk radio program offers. After Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson upset former GOP gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer for a slot on the Republican National Committee last spring, Tomczak spent two hours breaking down the dynamics of the race with conservative blogger John Gilmore.
There’s one other distinguishing characteristic about “The Late Debate”: It generally features more humor than anger. “I kind of fell out of line with conservative talk radio because it stopped being interesting,” Kruse said. “It was all about regurgitating the same talking points and getting very, very angry.”
Tomczak also argues that they are filling a void in the conservative talk universe. “Since Jason Lewis went national and AM 1500 went more sports, there’s no real call-in opportunity anymore,” Tomczak said. “So I was thinking that with those gone, there’s a void that we could fill. If you want to call into a [local] radio show on the right side of the aisle, this is the place to do it.”
“The Late Debate” is also conspicuous in its focus on the Capitol. Zellers, despite his ill-fated debut, has made four subsequent appearances on the show. Nearly two dozen other GOP legislators have also appeared on the program.
Zellers says he sometimes listens to podcasts of the show while traveling around the state and appreciates the sense of humor. “Far too often, on both the right and the left, the hosts have more commentary than they have questions,” Zellers said. “The Late Debate,” in contrast, “really appeals to the conservative and the Republican listeners that are 24 to 40 years old and that like a little sarcasm with their politics.”
On the night before the government shutdown commenced on July 1, Tomczak interviewed Zellers, Sen. Dan Hall, Rep. Branden Petersen and other legislators live on the air as the clock ticked toward midnight. After Gov. Mark Dayton announced that there had been no breakthrough in the budget standoff and that a shutdown appeared imminent, Sen. Mike Jungbauer offered this response on the “The Late Debate”: “What a crock of unadulterated b.s.”
Deep political roots
Tomczak’s political resume stretches back more than a decade. Most recently he served as political director on Emmer’s campaign for the GOP gubernatorial endorsement. In addition Tomczak oversaw the 5th Congressional District campaign of Joel Demos and spent two years working for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. He cut his teeth politically on the staff of former U.S. Sen. Rod Grams. Tomczak has twice run for the state Legislature, most recently losing to Rep. Denise Dittrich in 2006, garnering 46 percent of the vote. Those political contacts have helped attract guests for a fledgling program with a tiny audience.
“Part of that is people doing personal favors for me,” Tomczak said of the show’s ability to attract guests. “And part of that is people getting experience. There’s a lot of freshman senators and representatives who have never been on the radio. We’re a lot of people’s first radio experience.”
Kruse has less political experience. He oversaw new media efforts for Emmer’s campaign. Before that, Kruse did design work for a printing business with numerous political clients. He initially met Tomczak when Tomczak came to the firm looking for help in designing literature and signs for his initial legislative bid.
Kruse has arguably garnered the most attention for who he’s not. That’s because he shares a name with one of the freshmen GOP senators who took over the senior chamber in 2011. In fact, Kruse used to reside in the district that his namesake now represents. “Then he goes and runs and beats [former Sen. Leo] Foley,” Kruse said. “I was like, how did he do that?”
Tomczak and Kruse made their radio debut in February. Grams normally hosts a talk show on the Little Falls station that his family owns. But he took a hiatus to help freshman U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack set up his congressional office. The person who normally fills in for Grams was busy. So Tomczak and Kruse were recruited for a two-week stint.
“It was terrible,” Tomczak said of their performance. “But then we had something we could show people.”
They sent recordings of their shows to the owner of the StarCom Media Group, whom Tomczak had met while working with Bachmann. “He listened to the first hour we did and he listened to the last hour we did, and he said, ‘Well, you made improvement, so we’ll try you out,’” Kruse recalled.
“The Late Debate” hosts claim ignorance about how many people are listening live on any given night. Given the dearth of calls, it would seem to be a rather paltry number. But the shows are posted as podcasts each morning, expanding the show’s reach. According to Kruse, roughly 2,000 podcasts are downloaded each month.
“What I figure is it’s like rings of concentric circles,” Kruse said. “Right now we are trying to get popular in that very small ring of insiders and former staffers and people who are obsessive about politics.”
Mocking Bachmann’s presidential campaign
On a recent Sunday evening, members of the political roundtable gathered in a studio normally used by BOB-FM 106.1, the country station that’s also owned by the StarCom Media Group. It’s roughly three times the size of the space where Tomczak and Kruse normally broadcast the show.
Joining them were four GOP activists: Harry Niska, chairman of the GOP in Senate District 48 (and “the guy who lives 10 minutes away,” as Tomczak introduces him); Norann Dillon, who ran against DFL Sen. Terri Bonoff last year, garnering 48 percent of the vote; Nancy LaRoche, a contributor to the conservative blog True North; and Andrew Reinhardt, who plans to challenge DFL Rep. Melissa Hortman next year.
The initial topic of political conversation was Bachmann’s sputtering presidential campaign. The latest bad news is that her entire New Hampshire staff has resigned out of frustration. “Is this the sign that Michele Bachmann’s done?” Tomczak asked.
“I’m not sure that it shows that,” Niska said. “I learned two things from that story, though: First, Michele Bachmann has paid New Hampshire staff. And number two, apparently the rest of the campaign did not know.” This elicits guffaws from the rest of the roundtable.
Tomczak pointed out that the Bachmann campaign initially denied that the New Hampshire staff had actually quit. “Either it is true or it isn’t,” he noted. “If the people who were working for you are talking to reporters saying that they quit, I would take their side of things.”
At another point Kruse suggested that the latest polling data showed Bachmann trailing his own uncle. The tone of the conversation falls somewhere between sarcasm and outright mockery of the congresswoman’s presidential aspirations. It’s undoubtedly more candid than most conservative talk radio discussions about Bachmann’s prospects. But it’s also taking place on a Christian music station at nearly 11 p.m. on a Sunday night. There might not be anybody listening.