Just Talking

27 mf posterLinda Burton posting from Madison, Wisconsin – “It’s like melted cheese stuck to a gold-plated toaster,” said the voice coming out of the speaker. The voice was that of Mark Leibovich, guest interviewee on today’s talk show, Whad’Ya Know; broadcast Saturday mornings via Wisconsin Public Radio (WPR) and distributed by Public Radio International (PRI). I normally catch it on whatever National Public Radio (NPR) station serves wherever I happen to be, but today I’m in the thick of it, sitting “live” in the studio audience in downtown Madison’s Monona Terrace Center. Full of pre-show sugar-drizzled donuts and logger’s coffee, I watched host Michael Feldman wander around the stage and out into the audience, shirttail loose, aiming for casual; aiming to put us at ease. We were prompted before the “On Air” flashed; “I ask whad’ya know,” he said; “then you answer ‘Not much! You?’” We practiced a few times; “You need the gesture,” he chided, 27 mf musiciansflinging arms back and chest forward. “That makes it more….you know.” He chided announcer Sara Nics on her retro-chic outfit, totally wasted on a radio show – jeans split at the knees, spiked-heel leather boots; a plaid 70’s jacket. “I wouldn’t let my daughter go out like that,” he said. She did a little Charleston before she took her seat; we laughed, warming up to the process. Whad’Ya Know has been on since 1985; Wall Street Journal has dubbed Feldman “King of Small Talk Radio.” His show is meant to be silly; even 27 wk logoserious subjects get the low-key voice (think Groucho Marx). Today’s interview with Leibovich followed that path, as the author discussed his ire-arousing new book, This Town. Two Parties and a Funeral – plus plenty of valet parking in America’s Gilded Capital. “Washington DC,” Leibovich said, “is the place people go to get famous.” Feldman dug for “whys.”

“Why did you decide to write this book?” he asked. “I really became disillusioned with Washington politics in 2008, at the funeral of Tim Russert,” Leibovich explained. “Russert was a Washington icon; at his funeral people were handing out business cards and networking in a feeding frenzy, wanting to be seen there; it was more like a circus than a reverent memorial service.” Mark Leibovich is a national political reporter for The New York Times 27 mark and bookWashington bureau; before that he was with the Washington Post; he continued with his view of today’s Washington, adding to the “gold-plated toaster” comment; “it is the wealthiest place in the country, no longer a city of Democrats and Republicans, it’s a city of millionaires.” Feldman brought up the topic of the book’s non-existent index and Leibovich confirmed; “there is no index,” he laughed. “If people want to find where they are in the book, they have to buy it.” Leibovich unabashedly names names in his book, pointing out those he calls “well-fed locusts, who have gone from public service to self service.” “I guess you’re no longer on anybody’s lunch list,” Feldman quipped, as Leibovich interrupted the interview to tell his wife where the car keys were. A little more talk about the heydays of the James Cargills and Mary Matalins and the interview wound down; “This Town, by Mark Leibovich,” said Feldman, turning off the switch, and the show segued quickly into a pleasant jazzy version of Don’t Worry, Be Happy; John Thulin on piano and Jeff Hamann on bass.

John and Jeff provided entertainment throughout the show; when they weren’t playing they were sitting wiggly-butt, with cut-up gestures and eye rolls over Feldman’s comments; a 27 mf swedengaudy pink plastic flamingo perched at the edge of the stage. During breaks Jeff kept up a running story about a catheter, which he never finished; the last installment was of action figures in the bathroom wastebasket. So, where was the catheter? Feldman did three audience interviews, selecting guests based on the cards we turned in ahead of time; embarrassing the man who sells 3-D printers (why not just go buy the object instead of printing it?); suffering the angst of the teen girl on a month-long car-trip with her family (my brother used to knuckle-punch me in the arm, for a thousand miles, he said, knuckle-punching the girl’s brother); and feigning surprise when the tall blond exchange student who just finished 8th said there are only 10 years of school in Sweden (after that, you choose, pre-med or lawyer or mechanic, said the boy, who has decided he’ll be an auto mechanic). It was that kind of stuff.

In addition to the celebrity interview and the audience interviews, the show typically has these elements – All the News That Isn’t (skewed headlines), Thanks for the Memos (weird notes sent by viewers), and the famous Whad’Ya Know Quiz, where an audience member and a caller jointly try to answer questions that have been “thoroughly researched, though the answers have not.” Jerry the bus driver from Kansas City was the first to volunteer; teamed with Bill calling in from Hales Corners they hit a grand slam, knowing their current events and science and odds and ends. “Why did you want to do the quiz?” Jerry was asked at the 27 map rearrangedbeginning. “Because today I hit the trifecta,” he answered. “I’ve been to Keillor’s show, and I’ve been to Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me; today I’m here for yours.” We applauded, not needing the reminder sign; all of us obviously devoted NPR listeners.

Russ the pole-vaulting coach from Connecticut teamed with Cindy calling from Lakeview for the second quiz. Eagle River, Wisconsin, Snowmobile Capital of the World, was Town of the Week; a long-distance chat with an Eagle River resident filled in that segment of the show. The Town of the Week is selected the week before; an audience member was brought up to throw a dart at a skewed states US map; the dart landed on Toccoa, Georgia for next week. A flag-holding Uncle Sam patiently stood by the side of the miked-up seating 27 mf guestarrangement; wires strung crisscross over the floor; a lawsuit waiting to happen, Feldman warned, when he led a guest to the orange-plastic seats.

That was pretty much it; two hours of non-planned planned. Design a format but leave it open to audience response, a gamble that is sometimes funny, and sometimes not. “Did you enjoy being on the show?” I asked quiz-show participant Russ in the gift shop afterwards. “Immensely!” he replied, “although I was nervous as hell to go up on the stage. But it was okay, once we started talking.” I guess that’s what makes it work; a long-running show that doesn’t seem like a show at all; just talking.

Feldman is a Wisconsin native; a “20-year overnight sensation” born in Milwaukee; his bio is a hoot, written in the style he portrays so consistently on the show. When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1970, two things occurred to me: (1) my education was spotty due to the school being shut down repeatedly for Vietnam and other protests and (2) I had majored in English and (2a) there is no career called “English.” Hence a career in radio; just talking.

If you’re not a regular, check your NPR station for when the show airs in your home town; as for me, next week I’ll be listening from Lansing, Michigan, where, by the way, I’m catching Keillor live on Sunday night.

Public Radio International http://www.pri.org/whad-ya-know.html

Whad’Ya Know http://www.notmuch.com/