TV host first tried football, Tony Robbins, sales and sitcoms

Fargo native Chris Berg played football for future Minnesota Vikings coach Dennis Green, traveled the country with motivational speaker Tony Robbins and helped dozens of high school athletes land college scholarships.

But the former Fargo South High star quarterback says it was a life-changing family event that put him on his current career path as host and moderator of Valley News Live’s politically charged show, “6:30 Point of View.”

“All of a sudden my wife got pregnant, and you start thinking about your kid, and I don’t know, something just kind of flipped in me where I was like, ‘Boy, I’ve got to get involved here, I’ve got to start paying attention,’ ” he said in an interview this week.

It’s been just more than a year since Hoak Media, the parent company of Fargo station KVLY and operator of KXJB hired Berg full time to help host “6:30 Point of View” on KXJB. He previously split time with KFGO Radio’s Joel Heitkamp as moderator of the show’s “Hot Box” segment but began hosting the entire show by himself on April 1.

After years of working in sales and marketing jobs and a brief stint in politics, Berg, who turned 40 this year, said he feels he has found his calling in broadcast, even if his ratings don’t yet reflect his passion for the job.

And, contrary to some criticism, he disputes the notion that he’s a right-wing mouthpiece regurgitating Republican talking points, noting one viewer accused him earlier this week of being an unconstitutional left-wing moderator.

“I feel like I’m striking a pretty good balance, and at the end of the day, all I’m trying to do is ask tough questions,” he said.

Learning from ‘Tiger’

Berg said he grew up in a nonpolitical home with parents he describes as “very entrepreneurial,” his father working in insurance and marketing and his mother selling Mary Kay cosmetics.

“I guess I’ve always been a guy that believed in meritocracy, and I felt like that was more in line with conservative ideals,” he said. “And I wish we had more of that in this country, where it was like, ‘Hey, you know what? I work hard, I’m good at it, so reward me.’ ”

As starting quarterback at Fargo South High, Berg helped reward Bruins’ fans with undefeated state titles in 1989 and 1990.

He landed a scholarship at Division I Stanford and spent the 1991 season redshirted under Green, who left at the end of the season to coach the Vikings. Green was replaced by former San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who gave Berg limited playing time.

Not content to ride out his college career on the bench, Berg transferred to the University of Northern Iowa. He split time with another quarterback in 1994 and excelled as the lone starter in 1995, leading the Panthers to a conference title and finishing fourth in the nation in passing efficiency, according to Forum archives.

After football, Berg returned to Stanford and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1996. Two years later he landed a job with Robbins, the well-known business coach and self-help author. Berg worked with Robbins’ advance team, speaking to companies about successful sales and marketing strategies and trying to sell tickets for Robbins’ visits.

“We were kind of the front guys helping him fill the room,” Berg said.

Robbins took good care of his employees, and the experience shaped Berg’s career, he said.

“You were on the road, and you only had to really focus on, ‘How do I become a better communicator?’ ” he said, adding, “It was like Tiger Woods teaching you how to play golf.”

TV to politics to TV

With skills honed during his nearly three years with Robbins, Berg took a job in June 2002 with SkyPipeline, a wireless Internet service provider, developing the company’s sales system and helping to train and manage its sales staff.

Berg was also trying his hand at acting, with single-episode roles on the sitcoms “Frasier” in 2001 and “Will and Grace” in 2003.

One part of his TV past he’d rather forget was his 2003 stint on the Fox reality show “Mr. Personality.” Berg became one of two finalists to propose marriage to Hayley, a 26-year-old Atlanta woman who had to choose from 20 masked suitors based on their personalities. Hayley picked the other guy.

Berg said the show is “a chapter in my life that I’ve completely just sort of blocked out,” and declined to comment on it.

His next big role – and his longest one to date – came as vice president of business development for Student-Athlete Showcase, a company that guides high school athletes through the college recruiting process. In roughly five years with the company, Berg said he mentored more than 107 athletes and families, resulting in more than $8.6 million in athletic scholarships.

In September 2007, Berg married his wife, Ajit, then a personal shopper at Barneys New York in Beverly Hills and now a freelance fashion columnist for The Forum newspaper.

When she became pregnant with their now 3-year-old daughter, Berg, who was unhappy with the direction the country was heading, started looking for an opening to move his family from California to Fargo. He found it in the North Dakota Republican Party, which hired him in early 2010 as deputy executive director, putting him in charge of fundraising and news media in Fargo.

Berg was in the job for 10 months. A mutual Republican friend of right-wing radio host Scott Hennen tipped Berg off to an upcoming opening at AM 1100 The Flag, and he landed a gig hosting his own radio show, “We the People.”

“I was horrible at first,” he said. “Three hours of radio was just like, what am I doing?”

But he said his experience working for Robbins helped him understand how to frame conversations and ask questions. He started appearing on “Point of View” in early 2012 and went full time for the TV station in June 2012.

Station GM pleased

Jim Wareham, president and general manager of Valley News Live, said that “Point of View” has been a work in progress.

“We always wanted to have the show to have more opinion, be a little bit harder-edged and so forth, and it’s difficult sometimes for news people to cross that line and to step into it,” he said. “But it was relatively easy for Chris to do it because he came from a talk radio background.”

As Berg grew accustomed to the TV format, “he really picked up his game,” Wareham said.

“And then we just realized that, why team him up with somebody? This guy’s good enough to fly on his own, and strong enough. And we let him go solo, and we’ve been very pleased with the results.”

The program has shown slight growth in the ratings but remains well behind its main competitors in the 6:30 p.m. time slot.

The May ratings indicate Berg had about 4,000 people watching the show, compared with 49,000 watching “Wheel of Fortune” on KVLY and 20,000 watching “Entertainment Tonight” on WDAY.

Wareham said in his 30-plus years of experience in TV, Nielsen Ratings’ diary system of tracking viewer habits is slow to pick up new shows coming on, “so my guess is the show’s doing a little bit better than what Nielsen’s showing it.”

“It’s what we expected it to do,” he said, adding that the station is “committed long term to the program.”

While they wouldn’t disclose details, Berg and Wareham hinted that Berg’s role at Valley News Live may be expanding. Wareham said to expect an announcement in “a week or so.”

Stirring the pot

As host and moderator, Berg said he’s “there to kind of stir the pot.”

But he landed in hot water last August for comments he made on his Web-only “The Chris Berg Show” that drew a connection between Adolf Hitler’s propaganda techniques and U.S. House candidate Pam Gulleson, a Democrat.

Berg quickly apologized for the comments, which ultimately cost him his gig as a sideline reporter for North Dakota State University football TV broadcasts before the season even started. He said again this week that the comment was never intended to come out the way it did and that he “would never intentionally equate that man to anybody.” He no longer does the Web show.

“I think I’ve definitely learned … being in the media, it’s great, it’s fun, but it also involves a lot of responsibility,” he said. “And I think you’ve got to learn how to communicate in a way that your message lands.”

Heitkamp, who doesn’t hide his leftist views but prides himself on giving all sides the chance to explain their positions, said there’s “no question that Chris is right-wing.” But he said he has tried to impress upon Berg the importance of allowing targets of criticism to respond, “and I think he’s done it.”

“I know that there’s some politicians on my side of the aisle that may not think he’s been fair, but for me personally, I think he’s been fair,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp, who used to host the show’s “Hot Box” segment three nights a week, said Berg’s exit from talk radio made him more available for the TV show, “plus he was better lookin’ than I was, which is what TV’s all about.”

“So basically Chris is the reason I got canned,” he said, laughing. “I was completely OK with that.”

Heitkamp said he is available for the show on a per-call basis. But the relationship has cooled since mid-June, when Berg blasted his sister, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., for not being more outspoken about child welfare on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

The criticism prompted a call from the senator’s chief of staff to Valley New Live’s news director, a conversation Berg rehashed in detail on air, stressing that Heidi Heitkamp would not appear on the show.

“It went a little too far for all of us, and all of us needed to just take a break from each other and kind of re-evaluate our relationships,” Joel Heitkamp said.

Berg said he believes he’s “very fair” in his treatment of people from both political parties, noting he has been critical of North Dakota’s GOP-led Legislature.

“I say the Republicans blew this last session because there wasn’t more tax relief,” he said.

But Berg also admits he’s not a political wonk and continues to learn new things every day, something he also liked about his job with Robbins.

Had someone told him three years ago he would be hosting a TV show, “I would’ve thought you were crazy,” he said. “And now that I’m doing it, I’m like, man, I should have been doing this 20 years ago.”