(CNSNews.com) - The Tuesday memorial service for former Sen. Paul Wellstone, who was killed Friday in an airplane crash, brought howls from many Minnesotans who contacted their local radio stations after the broadcast of the service.
An estimated 20,000 attended the service at the University of Minnesota Tuesday evening, and thousands more watched and listened to the service, which was broadcast live by some television and radio stations around the state.
Questions about the service were raised when the nature of the three-and-a-half hour event began to take on political overtones, and listeners around the state contacted their local radio stations about the event.
"Some people found it offensive in what was supposed to be a memorial service. Late in the service, it became a rally," said Steve Enck, producer of the WCCO Morning News with Dave Lee.
Enck said the memorial service was broadcast live and without interruption on WCCO, a 50,000-watt clear channel station and Minnesota's largest radio station. According to Enck, listeners began calling the radio station Tuesday evening.
"There was a fairly even split," among listeners, he said. "Some callers felt that the memorial service became a partisan, I'm going to say, Democratic rally."
Even though WCCO does not routinely broadcast listener phone calls during its morning show, Enck said the station broke with traditional programming Wednesday morning.
"This is not a call-in show. This is not your open-line type program," he said. "The reason we took the listener calls is because we got so much reaction (Tuesday) evening and (Wednesday) morning from listeners, most of whom were very upset with the memorial service," said Enck, who's worked at WCCO for 18 years.
The listener response was little different in St. Cloud, Minn., where Kelli Gorr works as program director for WJON, which also broadcast the memorial service.
"The first call I got was 'are you airing the Democratic National Convention?'" said Gorr, who operated the broadcast console during the station's broadcast of the service.
"I felt duped. Ultimately, I felt it was a beautiful memorial until it became a political rally," added Gorr, who said that listeners to St. Cloud's oldest news and talk station described their reaction to the memorial service "with words like inappropriate, shocking, a sham."
"These are all words listeners used last night and this morning calling in and wondering why we aired it," she said. "I think those who tuned in were looking for a memorial service and don't feel that's what they got."
Brad Strootman, general manager for a group of four radio stations in Marshall, Minn., said, "the general consensus is that it went too far. It was over the top. It was supposed to be a memorial service and it became a pep rally."
Strootman, who manages radio stations KMHL, KKCK, KARZ and KARL, said none of those stations broadcast the service Tuesday evening "for fear that it would turn into exactly what it did. I worry about equal time issues."
Although none of the stations Strootman manages invited a listener dialog on the memorial service, he said listeners called anyhow. "We've had calls here for the number for the (Republican Senate candidate Norm) Coleman campaign," which Strootman said was given privately to listeners and not on the air.
"They wanted to make a contribution to the Coleman campaign," he said.
Not all radio stations contacted by CNSNews.com experienced such a listener response. Cory Kampschroer, news director for a group of radio stations in Red Wing, Minn., said local listeners were more interested in education issues Wednesday, particularly those surrounding a recent strike by local teachers.
"They really weren't talking about the memorial service per se," he said, adding that the controversy about the teachers' strike "kind of took away from the Wellstone thing."
Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Pawlenty was campaigning in Red Wing Wednesday morning and was interviewed live on KLCH-FM, where Kampschroer said the candidate expressed disappointment with the Wellstone memorial.
"He was disappointed," said Kampschroer. "He went to the service to pay his respects and it turned into a political rally for the Democrats to push their candidate."
But several hundred miles to the north, listeners to WEBC radio in Duluth were more vocal.
"The calls I heard - there were a number of them - they were upset," said Dave Walter, program director for WEBC. "They were disappointed. Some were angry that it turned into what they say was a political rally."
Walter, a 13-year veteran of WEBC who also handles news and sports for three other radio stations in the market, said, "I didn't hear any positive response for what was done, although I did not hear every person that called."
According to Walter, many callers to the Wednesday morning program, which he described as a conservative talk show, "liked the first part of the service," in which Wellstone was eulogized. But as the memorial service changed in tone, so did listener response.
"I would say most of the calls we had this morning were disappointed and upset with that particular type of programming," said Walter.
Minn. GOP Chair: We Want Equal Time (Oct. 30, 2002)
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