From 12-7-94 NewCity, a Chicago weekly

Aaron's freelance work led to a job as the tv critic (scroll to bottom for tv stories) for the Kansas City Star and he has self-published a book on the 98 tv season. He did Late Show News for five years and has just launched a new site, TV Barn that will contain broader tv coverage and links to his stories for the Star. LSN will become This Week at TV Barn (it will continue to include the late night tv guest lineups). This FAQ has more info on TV Barn and info on how to subscribe to the mailing list. More links will be added soon.

My editor wrote the line "buzz-starting Netsurf section of Wired Magazine" and didn't show me the final copy before it ran. It looks weird since I wrote the Netsurf item on LSN.

Late night catechism

End-running around the establishment press, a digital pundit dopes out Dave, Jay and Conan on the Net.
Steve Rhodes taps in.

The online revolution was supposed to pull people from the tube. But while many an online rookie logs on, gets bored and quits, TV junkies have rapidly mapped out their own turf on the Net, trading dirt on the shows they still clearly watch as obsessively as ever. Leading this infobahn convoy: "Late Show News," a "weekly electronic sheet" on late-night television written by Evanston's Aaron Barnhart. After debuting February 17, the "e-zine" already has more than 5,500 subscribers (with more than 150 new subscriptions a week) and thousands more read Barnhart's commentary on Usenet Newsgroups and online bulletin board systems. Still f1ying below the mainstream media's radar, the e-zine nonetheless landed on Computer Life's "99 cool places online" and in the buzz-starting Netsurf section of Wired Magazine.

Barnhart started out in the journalism program at Northwestern University, but found it to be "a stifling factory for creating trade journalists." Transfering to Classics, he continued writing, working on the now-defunct Northwestern Review. At the time, Barnhart admits, he didn't realize ditching j-school "jeopardized my chances of getting a writing job" when he graduated in 1987. He now works in a real estate advisory firm as an administrative assistant. He soon found himself looking for an outlet, "trying to find a medium comparable to working on the Review, with a real sense of mission."

Exploring Usenet, a sprawling international discussion forum distributed over the Internet and on thousands of local BBS's, Barnhart finally discovered that new outlet. About the time "Dave came to CBS and was kicking ass," Barnhart says, he began hanging out in the newsgroup. Eventually, he took over writing the news-group's FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) document filled with such Letterman trivia as

Q. Why are there two guest chairs?

A. Siskel and Ebert.

Q. What was the translation of the Japanese on the kites in the Late Night opening sequence (1992-93)?

A. One said "Late Night," another, "G.E. sucks." Then, when NBC announced they'd signed Jay Leno as Johnny Carson's successor on Tonight, a third Japanese kite appeared: "Jay sucks."

Q. Let's say I want to be a guest on the show - what should I do?

A. Directly from Dave himself: "Idon't care who you are, I don't care what you do. If you have four funny stories, you can he a guest on this show. That's what we're looking for."

Although updating the FAQ was fun, Barnhart longed to do something more challenging. So he launched his weekly electronic sheet, at first minimalistically called "Letterman News." Today, though the focus remains on Dave, "Late Show News" covers all of late-night television, loosely defined by Barnhart as any show which persuades you to stay up past your bedtime. But what makes a classics major devote his time to late-night TV? For him, the time slot remains TV's most challenging. "The late-night talk show is truly interesting - a genre that tries to convince people to stay up for it," Barnhart says. "I don't care if you're a student in the dorms at NU or you're a middle-aged South Sider, it's a nightly argument and relationships of great loyalty can grow up out of that premise."

Every "Late Show News" issue has a main story (ranging from a favorable assessment of Arsenio Hall's place in the late-night pantheon to a moving review of Letterman guest Harvey Pekar's "Our Cancer Year" to a multi-part series on Nightline) and bite-sized entries under "Breaking Late News." For those who actually plan their evenings around television, the newsletter also includes the upcoming lineup of guests for Letterman, Leno, O'Brien, Stewart and the reruns [of Letterman then running] on E! "I do make an effort to gather all the information about the genre that I can, but I don't make a great effort to cultivate gossip, " Barnhart explains. "I think my readers get the impression they are reading a very gossipy sheet, but that's probably due to the newsletter's tone. My way of packaging it is in some way an ironic tribute to Walter Winchell."

But what separates Barnhart from the million other attitudinal Usenet self-publishers? Village Voice TV critic Richard Gehr praises Barnhart's nose for the politics of broadcasting. "I'm happy to have him sift through that morass and distill it for me," Gehr says. "Aaron writes about the late shows as though he were a sports reporter covering the baseball season." When Letterman moved to CBS a year ago to wage war with Leno, Barnhart dove in with a war journalist's zeal; today, he admits, "I don't even know why I get so wrapped up in the ratings race. I guess at first it was seen as vindication for Dave that he could attract a far more lucrative audience than Jay Leno and prove the weasels running NBC wrong. Now, I've gotten sucked into the notion that finishing second to Jay is evil"

Among "Late Show News" junkies, not surprisingly, are Letterman staffers, some of whom now even act as sources, leaking him information early. But Barnhart also scores well among TV laypersons. Karla Robinson, a Northwestern grad student and "Late Show News" reader for the last six months, says, "I think Aaron is more thoughtful than most TV critics when it comes to late-night television. He watches everything, so you can trust his opinions." Actually, Barnhart doesn't watch everything, but his VCR does work overtime - he goes through three to four tapes a week, harvesting "a steady diet of Dave, Ted, and Jon Stewart, plus doses of Conan, Kinnear, and Leno (against my will, as a strictly professional obligation). I even watch Rush sometimes."

Luckily for Barnhart, his late-night obsession has started to pay off. When Gehr originally discovered "Late Show News" he planned to write a piece about it, "but Aaron's writing had enough wit, obsession, and authority that I quickly figuered he ought to just be in the paper. So I introduced him to Jeff Salamon, editor of the Voice's TV section." After Hours, short pieces on late-night television Barnhart writes regularly for the Voice, have appeared since April. As someone trying to break into the writing profession, Barnbart explains, you can't have a better vehicle than writing about what fascinates you, even for free, even for 15 to 25 extra hours a week. "I liken it to something Letterman once said when he was just starting out as an L.A. comic," Barnhart explains. 'Tom Snyder asked him why he would play The Comedy Store when they didn't pay him anything, and Dave said that every bit of work he had gotten to that point could be traced directly or indirectly to his exposure at The Comedy Store." And so, this j-school quitter may well yet surf the Net into the ranks of professional writers, just as a gap-toothed Indiana weatherman once became king of New York.

AARON BARNNART CHANNEL-SURFS THE LATE SHIFT (photo caption for photo I will eventually scan in)

back to clips or main page