Q&A With Kerri Miller

Reporter Steve Marsh asks the Minnesota Public radio host tough questions about how she asks the tough questions.

Kerri Miller
Miller and Tom Weber in the MPR studio in St. Paul.

Even the most mild-mannered Minnesota Public Radio aficionado has strong feelings about Kerri Miller. “The stentorian Miller polarizes MPR listeners in a way no other host does; she can be an excellent interviewer—aggressive by the network’s standards—but many find her affected” is how MinnPost media critic David Brauer put it this winter. Miller replaced the station’s last polarizing personality, Katherine Lanpher, on Midmorning eight years ago. When the unpolarizing Gary Eichten retired in January, MPR gave us another hour of Miller (plus more news) on the new Daily Circuit, airing weekdays from 9 am to noon.

What did you want to be when you were an English major in college?
I got hooked on the radio station at the college really quick. I got a job there, and that was like, “This is for me.”

Did you have any role models?
You know, no. I moved to Dallas right out of college with a friend. And I basically just took my little reel-to-reel tapes around to the radio stations and got a job the second day I was in Dallas, doing midnight to 6.

What kind of station?
It was KMGC in Dallas. It’s like an adult-contemporary format. I was moving around to find jobs in radio news, and I was in Tulsa working for this big Clear Channel station. And the news director at one of the television affiliates in town called and said, “We have an opening for a weekend TV news reporter.” Basically, “I’ll teach you television if you want to take it.”

I read an interview where you said you were comfortable with the cameras when they brought them into the MPR studios, because you’ve been on camera. Did you cultivate a TV look?
That really took some getting used to: the cosmetic side of the business. I’m more than willing to wear makeup and get my hair done and all that, but the emphasis is just as much on what you’re delivering reporter-wise as how you look when you’re delivering it. That was something that I couldn’t really afford to ignore, but it’s also something I don’t miss at all.

Your hair still looks anchor-ish, but slightly softened.
Hahaha. I’m in radio now, Steve, so it doesn’t have to look like the anchor bubble.

Have you changed your presentation?
Because I was in television for as long as I was, it’s part of getting my game face on. To rise to the occasion of doing the show is to go through the routine pretty much that I went through when I was in television, which is: Fix it up, put the makeup on, do the hair, dress up. I dress up almost every day.

David Brauer called you polarizing, and I think he’s right. You bug me sometimes.
In what way?

I think you’re holding something back.
That isn’t what I thought you were going to say.

You sound like you’re holding back sometimes, and it sometimes sounds condescending.
I’m not particularly emotional on the air, and yet I think the polarization, if it’s there, comes more from the tough edge.

I like that you ask tough questions.
I’ve had to learn how to calibrate the edge.

So you’re aware of what the public likes about you and what it doesn’t?
I would say for every e-mail I would get after a tough interview, for every one that said, “I can’t stand this. Don’t you know when to stop,” there would be somebody that would say, “Finally somebody is willing to ask the questions.”

Your bosses also have a full picture of what people think about you?
I think so. And you know what they want to know? My self-awareness about it. And I am self-aware about it. Here’s the balance: doing the journalist’s job to the utmost—and I take that really seriously—with the idea that there is a hosting capability here. Where it is making the audience comfortable. That’s the balance.

The Carson factor.
Exactly. But people came on Johnny Carson’s show because he would make them look good. My job, I think, is much more serious than that, but that’s the balance.

For sure, but the host part is more about the comfort level of the audience. You’re going to have a pleasant time.
But I don’t like the warm bath approach.

But your radio voice is part of the warm bath. So maybe that’s the thing: MPR is the warm bath.
God, I hope not.

But MPR is one of the only places where we can get serious, in-depth conversation about politics and culture.
But it shouldn’t be all warm bath, like I’m never going to be challenged.

Yeah, but it’s not supposed to be the most fun. It’s not supposed to be Crossfire. And that’s the danger, if you get tougher and tougher it gets shriller and shriller.
You’ve just identified the balance. The tough questions have to get asked, and it shouldn’t all be comfort zone stuff, but there has to be a strong element of that.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About
Kerri Miller

  1. She “love, love, loves” dogs. She has a Belgian shepherd rescue named Dara. “Like Dara Moskowitz.”
  2. “I’m a terrible cook.”
  3. She reads spy novels for fun. “It’s my getaway escape valve.”
  4. Her favorite movie is Broadcast News.
  5. “The last novel I really loved was Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, but it was for work.”