Photography: (Sagal) Stephen Voss; (Kasell) Anthony Naglemann; (Rocca) Thom Kaine; (Poundstone) Michael Schwartz; (Bodett) Debi Bodett; Illustration: Gluekit
It’s the end of February, and Pope Benedict XVI has officially resigned. In a small office at the end of Navy Pier, Peter Sagal, the host of public radio’s mega-popular quiz show Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, smiles wickedly, snickers, and asks, “Does he get to keep his Twitter handle?”
The show’s senior producer, Mike Danforth, shoots back, “Does God do his exit interview?”
It’s just another meeting of the six-person production team behind one of pop culture’s most curious phenomena: a wacky but hugely successful national radio show based on the simple premise of lampooning the news. “This is an hour where the fool becomes king,” says Sagal.
Every Saturday, Wait Wait serves up deeply satirical political jokes, jabs at cultural figures, and banter between Sagal and a group of comedian panelists. The show regularly invites A-list guests—including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Tom Hanks—to participate in such stunts as “Not My Job,” a three-question quiz on a variety of topics, from TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to Shetland ponies. It’s no wonder that the show—which is taped in front of a studio audience at the Chase Auditorium in the Loop—draws 3.2 million listeners across more than 600 stations, making it NPR’s No. 1 weekend show (and Chicago affiliate WBEZ’s top program too). It’s the radio version of The Daily Show—only more mysterious because most fans never see it live.
That’s about to change. On May 2, for the first time, the show will be filmed and broadcast live to more than 600 movie theatres around the country. It’s the first “cinecast” in NPR’s history—and, if it goes well, a chance for WBEZ to offset some recent negative news over its quixotic “Go Make Babies” campaign. (The station’s cheeky attempt to reach younger listeners raised more eyebrows than ratings.)
“Radio is becoming an experience,” says Eric Nuzum, vice president of programming for NPR. “This is a way for all stations across the country to experience the live show at once.”
In 2008, in that same vein, NPR teamed up with CBS to produce a prime-time TV version of the show, but a series proved too big and difficult to maintain and was never picked up.
“Really, what we do well is radio,” says Danforth. He points out that it wasn’t until 2005, after they started weekly tapings in front of an audience, that Sagal and the panelists found their rhythm, using the room’s energy to fuel their biting commentary.
“Seeing Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me! live will make it a warmer experience,” says panelist Paula Poundstone. “But now everyone will know what we look like. To be frank, Peter’s bald.”
Tune In: Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. on 91.5 FM
See It Live: Buy studio-audience tickets ($25) at wbez.org.