One of Cole’s most popular bits is an annual “Preposterous Statement Tournament” ranking the most hyperbolic pronouncements made by sportscasters and athletes during the previous year.
Longtime KFAN sports radio talk show host Dan “The Common Man” Cole remembers the moment when he realized there was an audience for unconventional sports talk radio—sports radio that didn’t take itself too seriously, the kind of radio even a common man could do. He was doing a 6 to 9 p.m. shift in 1994, his first year as a show host at KFAN.
The Woodbury resident’s natural tendency then, as now, was to spin yarns about random topics such as tales from his “Haight-Ashbury” days as a stoner high school dropout, his early-career small town radio mishaps or his golf game. He had callers lined up wanting to get on the air.
But Cole was trying to take his first large-market radio job seriously. He had scheduled football pundits from Viking-rival NFL cities like Green Bay and Chicago, to talk about the Central Division outlook. “I said we’d be right back with the football writer from the Green Bay Press Gazette; all the callers dropped off,” Cole says. “That’s when I realized there was an audience that didn’t take sports so seriously.” Lucky for Cole, since he grew up as a casual sports fan. “I didn’t have the football ‘X’s and O’s’ knowledge and couldn’t fake it. I didn’t want to spend time breaking down the Packers’ right guard situation.”
So Cole started doing what often sounds like a parody of conventional sports radio, with a combination of dry wit, feigned braggadocio and carnival barker huckterism. Two decades later, he’s known as one of the most unorthodox broadcasters in the Twin Cities—and also one of the most successful. The radio trade publication Talkers Magazine named Cole 52nd on its national “Heavy Hundred of Sports Talk” list.
Referring to himself as “the best of the lousiest and the lousiest of the best” (a phrase borrowed from a radio monologue by old school radio pundit Paul Harvey), Cole has won a number of local publications’ best radio talk show host awards including one for “gadfly of the year,” which sums up his mode of operation. He’s succeeded with a stream-of-consciousness, unscripted approach that no radio programming consultant would recommend. But it works for him.
The Common Man moniker was given to Cole by a former station producer, referring to the fact he was (unlike some of the station’s other hosts) neither a retired pro athlete or a well-known newspaper columnist or the son of local sportswriting legend Sid Hartman.
A big part of the Common Man’s radio shtick is fake self-aggrandizement, like carefully breaking down his best golf shots on the air, referring to himself as “a radio Romeo”/the dream of the everyday housewife (a line from an old Top 40 song), and offering listeners a chance to “touch the hem of the garment.” Someone tuning in for the first time might mistake him for a delusional egomaniac who knows very little about sports or anything else. But it’s all part of “the bit”—a big part.
There’s a Horatio Alger aspect to his bio. An indifferent student with poor grades, Cole dropped out of Coon Rapids High School to take a factory job. “I was a class clown who didn’t believe in rules. And, back when I was growing up (the mid-70s) it seemed like you could get by without a college degree,” he says. He once reminisced on the air about the fifth grade teacher, a Mr. Kaiser, who swatted him with a paddle. Kaiser’s son heard Common Man mention his dad on the air, and asked him about it. “His dad said, ‘He probably deserved it,” Cole says.
Cole’s older brother, comedian and actor Alex Cole, had a major impact on his career plans. “I always looked up to my brother. I saw that you could make a really good living in show business,” he says. After Alex and fellow comedian “Wild” Bill Bauer started Mickey Finn’s comedy club in Minneapolis, Dan worked as the club’s doorman. Cole knew he couldn’t do stand-up comedy, but looked for another way to get “on stage.”
“I liked the idea of making a living doing something I enjoyed; I didn’t want to go the blue collar route,” he says. “And I knew a couple of people who had been in the radio business.”
Later on, Cole earned his GED and enrolled in Brown Institute on Lake Street (now Brown College) to study broadcasting. Then Cole began a peripatetic early career, traveling “town to town, up and down the dial,” from Great Falls, Montana to Ottumwa, Iowa, to Forest Lake/then Cambridge, Minnesota, out to Wyoming, then Texas, then back to Wyoming, back to Cambridge and then Forest Lake (again) before landing at KFAN. Fired from his first four radio jobs and on the verge of quitting the business, he met a “good old boy” station manager named Jimmy Ray Carroll in Kammerer, Wyoming. “We hit it off and he gave me a chance to do early mornings and be the program director,” Cole says. “I wasn’t one of those guys who fell in love with radio, but it didn’t feel like work.”
With the top-ranked show in his time slot, Cole has enjoyed unusual—for the radio business—longevity at KFAN, along with fellow hosts Dan Barreiro (on the air since the station’s inception in 1991) and Paul Allen (who got his own show in 1998 when Jesse Ventura left the radio booth to become Minnesota governor). He is grateful to KFAN program director Chad Abbott and operations manager Greg Swedberg, who shared his realization that doing a “straight” show breaking down sports just wasn’t going to work. Abbott calls the Common Man “a consistent entertainer, whose content listeners have grown to enjoy in a world of talk hosts who can—at times—take themselves and their shows too seriously.”
“The Common Man” Cole and his family moved to Woodbury in 1998. “We like that there is everything you might want within five to 10 minutes here, a good school system, lots of green space,” he says. The man who has a signed proclamation from former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura declaring him the state’s ambassador of golf likes living in the east metro for “selfish” reasons. “On this side of town there are a greater number of public golf courses in close proximity than anywhere else in the metro; within 20 minutes of my house are eight or nine great courses,” says Cole, who golfs several times a week from mid-March into November or even December, weather permitting.
Cole is proud of the fact that his two sons, Daniel, 15, and Peter, 13, are straight-A students in the local school system. He credits his wife, Helen, for the kids’ success. “She really stresses the importance of education. I do realize how little I know, and they know enough not to ask me for help with their homework,” he says.
While referring to himself as “a radio dinosaur, and this is my La Brea Tar Pit,” Cole still enjoys not taking the billion dollar sports business too seriously, even if some people in the audience don’t get it, at first. An email he’s received countless times from listeners goes something like this: “I was one of those who couldn’t stand you at first, until I realized what you were doing. Now I love the show.”
“Anyone can do one sports talk show,” Cole says. “The trick is to do it for weeks, months or years and be interesting enough to keep people coming back.” It’s a style that might not work for anyone else but the uncommon Common Man.
Being the Common Man
Last year, Cole scored another achievement: becoming a published author. Minneapolis-based Wise Ink Creative Publishing rolled out his autobiography, Being the Common Man, which includes a forward from WCCO sportcaster Mark Rosen. Cole was persuaded to become an author by the publisher’s co-founder, Amy Quale, who heard about him through her father. “My father has mentioned for years that Common would say on air, ‘When I write that book…’ I started listening to the ‘Progrum’ off and on, and learned where my dad was getting (read: stealing) his jokes. I loved Common’s witty, creative, one-of-a-kind style, and I just had a feeling he’d be a great writer. ”
For more information on the book, visit the website here.