The man behind two curtains
Chris Hennen splits his time between two worlds that are about as different as is possible in one medium-sized Midwestern metro. By day he's Chris Walters - producer for "Hot Talk with Scott Hennen," the conservative talk radio show that is hoste...
Chris Hennen splits his time between two worlds that are about as different as is possible in one medium-sized Midwestern metro.
By day he's Chris Walters - producer for "Hot Talk with Scott Hennen," the conservative talk radio show that is hosted by his older brother and is renowned enough to land interviews with Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Republican luminaries.
"No one knows Scott Hennen better," says North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a longtime guest. "He's probably the perfect backstop for the show."
At night Chris Hennen is often at The Aquarium, the downtown music venue and bar where he promotes touring independent rock and punk bands such as Band of Horses or Ted Leo and the Pharmacists.
"I truly believe that people don't realize the type or caliber of entertainment he's bringing to the region," says Randal Black, a KNDS 105.9 FM radio-show host. "He has his finger on the pulse. It sounds generic, but it's true."
The gap between the two spheres can hardly be overstated. Here's a visual: Imagine the sartorial preferences of punk rock icon Iggy Pop and Vice President Dick Cheney. It's bare chest versus dark suit.
"He has this great duality to him," says Katie Oliver, a close friend. "Daytime Chris is very professional, working in a very professional environment. Then there's a whole other side to what he does and what he loves that's really kind of beautiful."
Squaring his days and his nights produces a startling realization: Fargo's most prominent conservative presence makes the town's top indie and punk rock shows possible.
"If I didn't have the one, I couldn't do the other," Chris says, though he adds that any good-paying steady job - "Hot Talk" or otherwise - would give him the cushion needed to risk thousands of dollars per show to try to break even on barely known but buzzed-about bands.
"You can't always do what you want and get paid for it," he says.
Kiss to punk
Chris Hennen figured out what he wanted at a young age: a career in music, any way possible.
His passion for music can be traced to his first concert, a Kiss show in Minneapolis when he was still in kindergarten. Scott, 18 at the time, took him there.
By the time he was 12 and for years after, his father would drive him from their home in St. Cloud, Minn., to see shows at First Avenue and other Twin Cities venues. "I'd go to a movie," Jerry Hennen says. "I couldn't take it."
Transitioning from hair metal via Nirvana, Hennen started getting into the Kill Rock Stars lineup of anti-corporate punk bands. The ethos of those groups was influential, he says.
"To me, it wasn't mohawk punk. To me, it was a state of mind," he says. "I started getting into the whole do-it-yourself thing."
Get into it he did. Chris was promoting punk shows in St. Cloud at the age of 16, bringing in KRS acts like Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill. Within a couple years, he'd also started an underground magazine, founded a record label, flamed out playing guitar in a couple groups, booked tours for bands and toured the West Coast as a roadie. He supported all of it bussing tables.
It was only after his father begged him that Chris took the overnight job at KCNN, a Grand Forks, N.D., AM station where Scott was working, says his mother, Jeanette Hennen.
"My idea was to go to work for Scott and save up for the record label," Chris says.
Art of persuasion
That was 1995. In the summer of 2001, the radio show moved from KCNN to WDAY 970 AM, which, like The Forum, is owned by Forum Communications Co.
Before he even migrated south to Fargo, Chris was promoting some shows at Ralph's Corner, the bar and venue in Moorhead that closed in 2005. Post-Ralph's, Chris and other promoters booked shows at a string of locales before The Aquarium opened in the spring of 2006.
He originally shared promotion at The Aquarium before taking over the bar's entire calendar this fall. Combined with his producing job, which requires him to be at the studio at 8 a.m. to prepare for the 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. show, the extra duties mean longer days.
"I've never been a big coffee drinker, but I've become one," he says.
The nitty gritty of his career and his 30-hour-a-week hobby have more in common than one might assume. They both hinge on "the art of being able to convince people to do what they don't necessarily want to do," Chris says.
Drawing the kind of bands he does takes both talent and a good venue to work with, not to mention the motivation and finances to pull it off, says Fargo promoter Jade Nielsen.
"I think it's really important to music fans around here and even for the marketplace," Nielsen says of Hennen's emphasis on cutting-edge indie bands.
Scott Hennen credits his brother with a good share of the success of "Hot Talk," which has translated on occasion to Scott's guest-hosting spot on Sean Hannity's nationally syndicated show.
"He could work for any news organization on the planet. The guy's incredible," Scott says.
Scott says his little brother is a master at getting past the gatekeepers to book newsmakers. And the fact that they're brothers adds a comfort level to the often hectic studio.
"I can push, push, push on him unlike I would an employee because he's my brother. If I push too hard, he's going to say, 'Hey, you're pushing too hard,' " he says.
Chris is an unabashed liberal and Scott is just as conservative as he sounds on air - their mother says they are the political extremes of the family, with their parents and two sisters falling somewhere in the middle - but it doesn't seem to be an issue at work.
"I understand what my role is," Chris says.
At the dinner table, it's a different story. Political chit-chat is generally a no-no.
Bros and shows
Chris Hennen's night job hardly ever comes up at the radio studio. Scott, more of a country fan, doesn't dig the acts Chris promotes. "My ears would bleed. I wouldn't walk across the street to see 90 percent of them," Scott says.
But his day job can bleed over into the rock club, mostly in the form of ribbing from regulars who know the score. There are exceptions, of course, but leftist politics are the norm in those circles.
Chris has plenty of ways to respond to guff givers.
"A, it's my brother. B, I'm good at it. C, it's a good job. And D, there are probably a lot of people who work for Republicans who aren't on the radio every day," he says.
But most folks don't care about Scott Hennen's politics any more than he does about their music. Black says after the Ted Leo show, he was talking about "Hot Talk" with the front man - an avowed liberal whose politics make overt appearances in his pop-punk.
"He got such a kick out of it," Black says. "It's one agenda pushing a completely opposite agenda."
Even those who do tease him - like Dan Nygard of defunct Fargo punk band Cut and Run - do so in good fun.
Nygard, who is now good friends with Chris, says he's respected by bands in the underground scene because of his willingness to give gigs.
"If you asked him, he'd put you in a show," he says.
But Chris doesn't put all of that time in - hanging flyers, picking up the beer required by band contracts, sticking around until 2 a.m. to pony up with the cash guarantees - for the local bands or for other fans.
Chris does it because he's passionate about music. He'd go nuts if those shows didn't happen, and they wouldn't happen without his day job.
"I mainly do it for myself. I'm just doing things I like," he says.
Oliver says she thinks that's the way it will stay.
"I think the day it stops being fun is the day he'll stop doing it," she says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535