Last Broadcast

Tinnitus forces Ian Punnett to quit his radio show. And the Twin Cities loses a master of talk.

Ian Punnett
Photos by Cameron Wittig

Meanwhile, you’re doing hard rock radio in the Quad Cities. What’s your haircut?

I had shoulder-length hair. But I did it my way. I had it with penny loafers. So I wasn’t terribly different from how I am now. I was in a band, a thrash metal band called Bütt Lynt. And we put the umlauts over the u for Bütt Lynt. I was the lead singer.

Did you keep an intellectual distance from rock culture?

No. I had had an epiphany in New Jersey. Everything I was doing was fun and it was good morning radio, but it was a little highbrow. And I thought, I’m missing an opportunity. I was actually in church when the thought occurred to me: I’m missing an opportunity to be what other people need me to be. What greater calling can any of us have than to help somebody else have a better day? So when we moved to the Quad Cities, I had decided I was going to find the things that made them laugh and the things they thought were interesting. And to live that life and do everything I could to put a smile on their face before they went to work.

You became a servant of the people of the Quad Cities.

That’s how I thought of it. And I know I’m still a morning guy at a rock station, but I had a mission: I’m going to make you laugh on your terms and not on mine.

Then where did you go?

WGN in Chicago. They too were looking for something edgier; their talk-radio format needed an infusion of youth. Of all the places I’ve ever worked, that was the hardest place.


(Sighs.) How do I say this? It was a hard place to do something true. The filter there was always, “Don’t offend anybody.” So you would start with, “Hey, we need talk going again and we need to attract younger people . . . BUT DON’T OFFEND ANYBODY.” That became the battle and the curse for the next three years.

Then Atlanta. At what kind of station?

I replaced Sean Hannity.

Wow. Conservative talk?

The station was. I wasn’t. Not in the way that Sean is. What I am is interested in having the conversation. I was having it much more from a pop-culture standpoint. I was really interested in the culture, not can this candidate win over this other candidate.

What year?

1996. I showed up right after the election.

Rush Limbaugh was a big thing.

Totally. So it’s a morning news format. And then me. And then Rush. And then an afternoon drive host that was super conservative. I was sort of the opinion bridge.

Are your politics conservative?

I’m a very traditional guy.

Well, you are a deacon.

I wasn’t trying to win one for the party. I was trying to have interesting conversations on things that matter.

How long did you last in conservative talk radio?

As long as I wanted. There was no pressure on me. Nobody ever came to me and said, “You’re not conservative enough” or “You’re too liberal.” It all gets measured on ratings.

You were working on local conservative talk AM-1500 when Ginny Hubbard proposed what became the FM-107 all-female format to you.

Let’s establish some vocabulary. The idea from the very beginning wasn’t to create what you just said casually, “an all-female format.” But was to create a spoken-word radio station that would attract women in the percentages that traditional talk radio was attracting men. We didn’t go into it with that mindset of OK, we’re going to create a woman’s format. We wanted to get a feel for what it was that non-traditional talk-radio listeners would be interested in, and we were hoping they were going to be women.

When did Margery come on the air with you?

I would call her when I was on AM-1500, bugging her on topics and fooling around a little bit. I did it more when I moved over exclusively to FM-107. And then I called her very frequently and she started to have some regular segments that were done on the phone.

So shades of David Letterman or Howard Stern, making somebody from your personal life a character?

Sure. And in this case, it was because we would carry on a conversation that we had the night before. So unlike using her as a bit, it would be: This is what we were talking about last night. Tell everybody what you said about X. Frequently they were marital disputes. You explain your position and I’ll explain mine, and then we’ll take calls on it.

Give me an example.

Margery was very against the kids playing video games. She tended to feel strongly that there was a connection between violence and video games. I felt differently about it. We eventually found common ground.

Did your habits of consuming pop culture change when you went to FM-107?

I want to be reading and watching the things that the audience is. I’m there as a service. I’m there to help them. I’m there to help them have a better day. I’m there to make them smile. You have to play to the room.

What did you read?

I probably picked up The National Enquirer a lot more often than I used to. Because it’s funny. National Enquirer, Examiner, they are great pieces because they’re such cartoons. They take the nugget of the truth of something and they blow it up or distort something to give it a great headline.

What about TMZ and Perez?

I was not a big fan of Perez. I thought he was guilty of doing the thing he seemed to stand against. He was always talking about bullying and people who were homophobic. And then he would draw these horrible pictures on celebrities’ faces. I didn’t think he knew who he was. TMZ, on the other hand, that’s a scream. Especially the TV show—I just love it. I think it’s a good model for what we do, because it’s carefree. It’s just: This is our topic, these are our people, this is what we have to say about it, NEXT. It doesn’t worry about whether or not it’s smart. It’s just fun. And if you’re in the mood for fun, here it is.

PUNNETT AND I TALKED for hours—on the phone, in person, and after his last shows. He didn’t dwell on the hearing damage caused by 38 years of having headphones clamped over his ears. Or his pain. Or his career ending. He was positive, matter-of-fact, at peace. Perhaps it was this low-volume stoicism, this stubborn friendliness, this insistence on reasonableness that made so many different people want to start their day with him over the years. I called his wife, the person he has talked to, both on air and off, more than any other person, and asked her what made him so good at it.

Punnett has a book coming out called How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God, which he says was in no way inspired by his condition.

“He’s a natural teacher,” she said. “His mom’s the same way—if she has information, she wants to share it. And radio actually lends itself to that better than any medium, better than print and better than television, certainly. Because it’s immediate: ‘I have this nugget of information and I can give it right to ya.’”

Punnett is not done being a teacher. He has a master’s of divinity degree from Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He’s an Episcopal deacon at St. Clement’s in St. Paul. And he has a book coming out this spring called How to Pray When You’re Pissed at God, which he says was in no way inspired by his condition. He’s looking at going into a PhD program to study the mass media he’s spent his lifetime performing. He’s written two children’s books. “This is what I do when I can’t sleep,” he says, referring to the head-splitting pain that keeps him up at night: “I write.”

By spending a quieter life away from the megahertz and the headphones, Punnett hopes to control the buzzing in his head. And although he’s not a complainer, Margery says it’s taken a toll. “You get an appreciation for ‘chronic,’” she says, and then she breaks down. “The thing about Ian is that he’s an optimistic soul. He just is. But you used to see it on his face, like you could see that he’s happy.” She takes a moment to recover. “And when he got really sick, when it was just getting too much, you could see it on his face. It was so hard.”

Right before the holidays, the couple sold their house in St. Paul and moved into an apartment in Edina. Their two boys are off at college now, and although Punnett’s condition will have to be dealt with, there is hope that now that he’s off the air, things will get better.

“When I was younger,” Margery remembers, “I was in TV and he was in radio. They’re such weird businesses, and I used to be fearful about what’s our path and are we going to make it. And he always used to say to me, when we were young and we were so broke, ‘God doesn’t take us halfway. Everything is going to be fine.’ I would get so frustrated. ‘How can you know that? You can’t know that.’ It took years,” she says. “We had difficulties, but everything would be fine. Now he says God won’t take us halfway, and I believe him.”