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public TV and radio in the United States
Sagal strides, waving, across stage, his posse in background Peter Sagal and the rest of the Wait, Wait gang moved into a Chicago theater in May. (Photo: Tony Armour.)

Loving the live buzz, with or without a net

Originally published in Current, Sept. 19, 2005
By Jeremy Egner

A relic from radio’s sepia-toned era — before “driveway moments,” to say nothing of iPod reveries — the live performance in front of an audience is one of the few artifacts that hasn’t gone the way of the family Philco.

Its mystique shows no sign of fading. This spring, filmmaker Robert Altman and a starry cast will bring A Prairie Home Companion to a cineplex near you. In June, live broadcast enthusiast Michael Feldman celebrated Whad’Ya Know’s 20th anniversary with a special trio of road shows.

Even producers known for meticulous postproduction and sizeable tape-to-airtime ratios, such as Ira Glass and Doug Berman, perform on tour for live audiences. In May, Berman’s Wait, Wait ... Don’t Tell Me! established a permanent home for live tapings in Chicago’s Bank One Theater after years of alternating between road shows and studio tapings. This was a show whose panelists often weren’t even in the same city during tapings, much less generating excitement from a live audience.

Still going strong are live-performance shows such as PRI’s From the Top and Riverwalk Jazz.

Shows taped before an audience can still be tweaked and shaped in editing — for better or worse, depending upon whom you ask. But no matter whether you ask someone from the live-in-the-moment contingent or the live-on-hard-disc crowd, producers agree that the energy and creative demands of performing before a live audience, as well as the added electricity and sense of community, result in something that simply can’t be matched in a studio.

“With radio, you’re generally listening and thinking, ‘This person is just speaking to me,’” said Margaret Moos Pick, executive producer of Riverwalk and a founding producer of PHC, which has been produced in front of an audience since its debut in 1974. “Then suddenly you hear the audience clapping and having a good time and it pulls you in even more and it’s just a kick.”

Chuckles as herring

Different flavors of live radio reflect the variety of shows and performers. Shows such as PHC and Whad’Ya Know are really live, in real time and immediate. PHC’s cast and band rehearse on Fridays and do a sound check on Saturdays. The technical crew’s expertise “gives the rest of us room to improvise,” says host and producer Garrison Keillor.

“You get a better performance when you don’t have a net,” he says. “It’s hotter and there’s inspiration under pressure.”

Says Whad’Ya Know producer Todd Witter: “Whatever I do for the show is beforehand. Once it starts, I know it’s out of my hands.”

At the other extreme, the occasional This American Life road tour, launched to raise funds for the series, is still largely preproduced, though Glass introduces segments live, seated alone on the stage with a soundboard. Each performance in the tour is recorded and the best bits combined into a broadcast at tour’s end.

Wait, Wait, which started as a studio show and is still edited before broadcast, opted to go permanently live in front of an audience after doing more than 20 road shows in theaters between 2000 and 2003.

“We decided that the benefits of being in front of an audience were just immeasurably better,” said Rod Abid, the show’s senior producer. “The people onstage did better — the crowd reactions gave everyone a charge — and if you’re doing a humor show and you’re the only one laughing at the jokes, it sounds insular and self-congratulatory.”

As a production element, the sound of people responding to what’s happening onstage draws listeners in and makes them feel like they’re part of an exclusive group, says Berman, creator and executive producer of the news-based quiz show.

A favorable audience reaction gives the humorists "permission” to laugh at jokes. When jokes flop, Abid adds, audience groans soften the thud. The immediate feedback is a welcome rarity for radio producers.

"Producing a radio show is so strange,” says Julie Snyder, senior producer for This American Life. “You put it on the air and then shrug and walk out of the studio and sort of wait for your parents to call later that week to say they liked it.”

In the theaters “you hear listeners laugh and respond . . . it feels like there’s a lot of immediacy,” she says.

Of course, the crowd gives performers a charge as well.

"Knowing there are real laughs that we might get makes us work to be funnier,” says Wait, Wait host Peter Sagal. “We’re like dolphins leaping for bits of herring that way.”

For Feldman, a live audience goes beyond being motivational. Live is the only way he can perform, he says, because it’s his nervousness that leads him to free associate and draw comedy out of crowd members and callers.

"They are the production,” he says of the audience. “We’re audience-friendly and audience-dependent.”

"It sort of is a problem,” he quips. “You have to keep reminding yourself that there are people listening who might not be able to see what you’re talking about or what’s funny.”

Avoiding the temptation to play to the few hundred people in attendance — at the expense of entertaining the thousands or millions listening — is a real challenge for performers.

"In certain situations, I know if I just raise an eyebrow it will get a huge laugh, but you just can’t,” Sagal says. “We’ve all listened to radio shows when you know those people in the theater are having a wonderful time but you’re not quite sure why, and pretty soon you lose interest in finding out.”

But when the show entertains both audiences, live radio reinforces “the friendliness that’s so important in public radio,” says Marge Ostroushko. A longtime consultant and pubradio producer, Ostroushko worked on PHC in the 1970s and 1980s and helped with the live This American Life productions.

It helps listeners in an increasingly small and fragmented world “be places,” she says. “It helps us feel like we’re a part of something.”

How live should live be?

Sometimes the payoff is huge, though available only to listeners in attendance.

During a Wait, Wait taping some time ago, longtime panelist Paula Poundstone noticed a young girl shivering in the chilly auditorium. In midshow, Poundstone rose, went downstage and offered the girl her jacket. The crowd erupted in appreciation.

Radio listeners never heard the applause: The moment was edited out of the broadcast mix.

"It was wonderful moment,” Sagal says, “but it doesn’t do anything for the people at home.”

Compare that to the approach of Feldman, who has been known to show slide shows to Whad’Ya Know’s theater audiences while radio listeners are tuned in at home, Witter says.

The contrast underscores a difference in approach between edited “live” shows such as Wait, Wait and truly live broadcasts such as Whad’Ya Know and PHC that make radio audiences privy to the unfolding of a high-wire act without a net.

"It’s the difference between a show and a program,” Keillor says. “A show is open to the unexpected, like a picnic, and a program is all buttoned up and fenced-off, the blemishes airbrushed out.”

"To me, that’s the appeal of radio,” Feldman says. “It’s the feeling that anything can happen ... that you are part of what’s happening right now.”

For listeners, there’s something compelling about knowing the show is being created before their ears, he adds.

Ostroushko calls true liveness a “warmness factor.”

Like the listeners of the old-time radio shows that inspired PHC, the variety show’s fans “know it is live and that they are listening at the same time,” she says. “It enhances the community and intimacy.”

“Those who are listening can participate right then and there,” Witter says. “... As has been proven by many shows, you can lead your audience to believe it’s live and spur of the moment, but it’s not. We’re not out to fake-out our audience — we’re there to entertain and include them in the same moment we’re in.”

Sagal contends that editing doesn’t remove the spontaneity or the sense that anything could happen. After the Wait, Wait staff scripts and preps the shows, “one of the ironies ...is a lot of what you end up hearing is stuff we didn’t plan. Even though it’s not live in the moment, we’re live in the sense that what you’re hearing all happened that way on stage.”

"The great moments we remember are almost entirely spontaneous,” he adds. “It’s not, ‘Wow, I wrote this really great line!’”

For Berman, the “live” vs. “live but edited” argument is a no-brainer.

"Listeners couldn’t care less if it’s live or not,” he says. “ ... What audiences recognize is if they’re listening to something good or not.”

The thrill of an all-live broadcast is more important to performers than listeners, who shouldn’t have to endure anything but the best radio generated from the theater performance, Berman says. “What excuse is there for not doing the work and making the best possible show?”

PHC is a notable exception because it is produced very well in advance, he says.

But generally speaking, “broadcasting a show live is an act of laziness on the producers’ part,” Berman says. “It’s like publishing a first draft of a novel. Is it easier? Sure, but it’s disrespectful to the audience because you’re not finishing the work before you put it out there.”

Devoted audiences for each approach suggest that there is room for both on air, as well as perhaps for more shows willing to embrace a style with roots in the past in the hopes of remaining relevant in the future.

"We’re heading in the wrong direction: radio, which is kind to individualists, we’re making more corporate, humorless, pretentious,” Keillor says. “In order to compete with the Internet, we have to restore radio’s sense of immediacy and intimacy, otherwise we’re toast.”

Web page posted Oct. 5, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

Live & in person
2005


Prairie Home
St. Paul, Minn., Oct. 7-8, 14-15, 21-22, 28-29
New York City, Dec. 2-3, 9-10, 16-17, 23

Wait, Wait
Springfield, Ill., Oct. 27
De Kalb, Ill., Nov. 17

Whad'Ya Know?
Indianapolis, Oct. 15
LaCross, Wis., Nov. 12
Madison, Wis., Oct. 8 & 29, Nov. 5 & 19,Dec. 3 & 10

From the Top
Birmingham, Ala., Oct. 22
Columbus, Ga. Oct. 24
Chicago, Nov. 15
And 2006 dates on website

EARLIER ARTICLES

Michael Feldman, pubradio's original Saturday wisecracker and devotee of live radio.

Car Talk, like many NPR programs, sounds "live" but is boiled down from longer tapings. A visit with the guys.

Producers roll out Wait, Wait to beef up weekend programming for pubradio, 1996.

LINKS

Whad'Ya Know's website , including Feldman's essay, "Why I Do Live Radio."

Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me: The Oddly Informative News Quiz.

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