To write this month’s magazine feature on Almanac, we sat down with three members of the Almanac team who have been with the show for much of their career.
Brendan Henehan began working at TPT in 1982 and worked on three other shows before being asked to help develop a new weekly show for the station. He thought he would work on Almanac for two years before moving on to his next project. Little did he know his career would be spent shaping one of the most significant public affairs programs in the state. A little trivia about TPT’s very own trivia master: Brendan Henehan has produced more statewide political debates than any Minnesotan in history.
Kari Kennedy is Associate Producer of Almanac and Series Producer for Almanac at the Capitol. She has been with the show since 1994. Prior to joining Almanac, Kari worked with Fred de Sam Lazaro on PBS NewsHour.
Mary Lahammer first interned with TPT in 1993 and was hired as a political reporter in 1998. In 2002, she became anchor of Almanac at the Capitol when the series launched.
Read more about what has kept them working on Almanac, their memories from the program, and their thoughts on Almanac and its viewers.
What led you to get into the news industry?
Mary: I like to joke that I was genetically engineered to be a political reporter because when you breed a print reporter with an actress, and that’s my mom and dad, you get a political reporter. My dad was a political reporter for 36 years for The Associated Press, and then went on to work for the Star Tribune and freelance for the New York Times. He really was my role model and inspiration. He brought me to work. So, I always say, from the very first day I could walk, talk, or breathe, I was probably doing that at the Minnesota State Capitol, chasing my dad and fellow reporters around. I fell in love with this business and this particular niche of political reporting.
Brendan: As a kid election nights were like my Christmas. They’re big gifts coming all night long. You would just sit down with some popcorn and watch. And I remember when I was ten years old, Halloween 1968, President Lyndon Baines Johnson announced a halt of the bombing of North Vietnam. And he was going to make an address at night. And I knew it. And I remember I was trick-or-treating, and I was going through my neighborhood. And I see the TV on in the background. I invite myself into someone’s house, and say, “I know the President is going to talk, can I come in and watch.” I’m dressed as a football player or something, holding a bag of candy in some stranger’s house I’ve never met, watching the president on TV. There was always that kind of connection of caring about what happens in the news. And this is a way you can do that, and you can engage in community.
Kari: I was eight years old during Watergate and I sat in the kitchen watching on a small little black and white television, watching the hearings with my mom. I didn’t bust into a stranger’s house. I just didn’t go outside and play with my friends. I just sat in the kitchen and watched these Watergate hearings, and my friends were all like, “You don’t wanna come out?” No, this is important.
Do you have a story from Almanac that has stuck with you?
Kari: Senator Wellstone’s plane crashed on a Friday, and I knew one of the staff members on that plane. It was a really hard day for all of us [….] It was an important day, and I hope people watched that night. We think they did. I got notes from former colleagues and friends throughout the next month saying, “I watched, and it helped me.” And it was a good thing to do. But it was a difficult day. And when we went on the air, we only had one guest in the building, because it was so hard to get people. And they were leaving vigils and leaving things to get to us. I remember going into the control room 5 minutes before air and saying to Brendan, our first three guests aren’t here. There is only one person in the building. We’re going to have to start with him, and I’ll let you know if and when anybody else shows up. And it was that kind of a night. Everyone ended up showing up, and it was a really hard show for all of us to do. But it was important for us to do, and if we didn’t have a live show, we also couldn’t have done it.
Brendan: I often think about big events that focus attention on us and you’re doing important work. Political debates fall into that camp. I’ve produced more, you know, political debates on TV statewide than anyone. They’re just a lot of energy and a lot of focus. You’re doing important work, whether that’s a Senate debate or Governor’s debate. We had candidates for Mayor of Minneapolis during COVID in the studio debating. And so, you know, those are nights I often remember, cause the stakes are high, higher than the normal Friday.
Mary: I started at Almanac in 1998 when Minnesota elected a third party, former pro-wrestler-actor to governor—Jesse Ventura. That was the first big story I ever covered, and it was international news, and he remained international news for four years. His first trade mission was to Hollywood. And then we went to Japan and China and Cuba, and I spent a week with Jesse Ventura and Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba. I never thought that was going to happen. So, I don’t know if anything can compare to my very first year at TPT.
What makes covering Minnesota unique?
Mary: I think Minnesotans continually keep us on our toes as voters with their independence and their kind of populism and their libertarian streak, you know, kind of Prairie Populism started here. We continue to surprise the nation and our own political reporters here in our own state.
What has kept you invested in Almanac throughout your careers?
Brendan: I love the weekly cycle. It’s always challenging. You have new audiences. You got new issues. There’s never a lack of things to do and at the end of the day it’s just a kick, you know, having access statewide to an inquisitive audience. When I leave the show, I’m gonna miss that.
Kari: I say it as a joke, but I’m sure some people think I have no ambition, because I have stayed on the show for a long time as the Associate Producer of Almanac. I remember being sick to my stomach when I was in the control room sometimes at first, because there’s so much that can go wrong. But it’s also just a really fun, exciting thing to do. And I’ve always loved politics. I got the newspaper delivered to my front doorstep when I was a 17-years-old. I started college right after I turned 18. But I moved out when I was 17, and I ordered a newspaper, because I wanted to read the news. No 17-year-old in the world gets a newspaper delivered. So, it was a way to combine those loves and a way to serve my community. I mean, I think of what we do as a community service, and I decided a long time ago that what I was working on mattered more than my title.
Mary: I would say one of the things that has kept me is the voters. The voters are incredibly engaged. They have a sense of humor. They’re independent, they’re interesting. They’re not always predictable. I say Minnesota is the best place to cover politics because of our voters and because of our viewers. They’re the ones who keep me here.
What would you want viewers of Almanac to know?
Brendan: There aren’t other shows that do this. There are hour long shows that have news in the title, and they have some variety and some pacing, but they’re not going to do live music, and they’re not going to have funny essays, and they’re not going to ask people to call in or write in an e-mail with answers to history questions. Maybe you would find something similar in public radio, but in TV there is not another place like Almanac.
Kari: Our show is richer for the reporters that we have. We’re able to cover a lot more. As Brendan pointed out, back when he helped first start the show, it was a very studio-based show and very studio-bound. We still are studio-based, but we have the ability to have more field tape in our show with Mary as our dedicated political reporter in a way that didn’t really exist before her. And it’s been great to have Kaomi Lee as an addition. She’s our Greater Minnesota reporter, but she also has the ability to branch out and do other stuff. You know, Kyeland Jackson has left us [for the Star Tribune], unfortunately, but it was nice for a short period of time to have a Report for America data reporter. And we hope to have that return again in the next cycle of Report for America.
Mary: How truly stridently nonpartisan and apolitical we are 24/7. I’m not just that way at work. I’m that way at home. I’m that way with my family. I’m that way in my personal life. I was raised by a journalist to value all viewpoints and still work really hard to do so. We don’t pick winners and losers, and we try to be very careful and incredibly militant about not taking sides and providing a nonpartisan and civil, substantive venue for all parties and all beliefs to engage in.
You can watch Almanac Friday evenings on TPT 2 at 7:00PM and or stream episodes and segments anytime.
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