‘Wait Wait&Don’t Tell Me!’ to tape show in Salt Lake
June 9, 2007
National Public Radio’s news quizshow, "Wait Wait&Don’t Tell Me!" owes a piece of its unusual success story to Utah, a state it will revisit this Thursday for a live taping at Kingsbury Hall.
Seven years ago, the Chicago-based show chose Salt Lake City to test its first episode taped in an auditorium full people.
"Wait Wait" Senior Producer Rod Abid, who remembers the 2000 Salt Lake show as one of his first, attributes the change in format to "Wait Wait’s" steady growth in listenership over the years.
Between 2005 and 2006 the show’s ninth year Abid reports the show had a 26 percent increase in listener numbers. "Wait Wait" currently reaches 2.3 million listeners weekly on more than 400 NPR member stations, and is ranked as one of the "most downloaded" podcasts on iTunes.
And Thursday’s "Wait Wait," which will feature stand-up comedienne Paula Poundstone, former Daily Show correspondent Mo Rocca and humorist Tom Bodett, has already sold out.
"Despite the fact we are what they call a ‘mature show’ we’ve become the fastest growing show in NPR by a long shot," he says. "We believe [a live audience] had a huge effect on our listenership."
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Originally, Abid says "Wait Wait" used ISDN lines (telephone lines used for radio shows) to produce the show. While host Peter Sagal would broadcast his quiz questions from a Chicago studio, his co-host and scorekeeper, NPR Early Morning Edition newscaster Carl Kasell phoned in, as did all of the celebrity panelists.
These days, listeners wishing to participate (for the coveted prize: Kasell’s voice on their answering machine), continue to dial-in at 1-888-WAIT-WAIT, but panelists and hosts are together in the same studio.
When "Wait Wait" returns to Kingsbury Hall this week for its third visit to city, wise-cracking panelists stand-up comedienne Paula Poundstone, former Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent Mo Rocca and humorist Tom Bodett will fly in.
Abid jokes that Kasell, who routinely gets on a plane every Thursday from Washington, D.C., has earned the status of "knighted" executive class.
The rise in the show’s production costs have been worth the effort, it seems. Giggles or groans from the audience when panelists compete in quizzes or when guests, such as Elizabeth Edwards discussed her first date with former senator John Edwards, have made the show better, according to Abid.
"I think it sharpened everybody’s abilities to be on stage with one another and the fact that other people were laughing at their stuff, added a level of excitement and motivation," he said. "The audience gives you permission to take material over the edge and it’s really important when you’re doing satire and comedy to have the ability to do that."
But not too far over the edge. While panelists are encouraged to riff and improvise throughout a taping, there are limits.
"Since our show airs in so many markets, on Saturday and Sunday mornings, we try to make sure it’s not ‘R’ rated," says Abid. "We’re definitely a family-hour show and we like a good ribald joke as much as the next guy, but we try to do it in a way that only an adult or a knowing child would understand&we rely on innuendo as much as possible."
In preparation for the Salt Lake taping, Abid, along with four other producers will spend Monday through Wednesday perusing the Web for funny ways to incororate the big stories into the various "Wait Wait" games. They rely so heavily on the Internet, Abid supposes that the show could not exist without it.
Abid did not reveal any of his go-to news Web sites.
"We’re a pretty friendly show when it comes to competition," he assures. "We don’t feel our job is to show anybody up on the air. Our job is to make the contestant feel comfortable."
Staying abreast of top stories in the news is the best way to train for "Wait Wait," he advises, though sometimes the show shies away from topics that are too serious to mock.
Abid mentions that the week of the Virginia Tech shootings, for instance, was particularly tough. "Even if you felt privately that [shooter Seung-Hui Cho] was kind of goofy, there just wasn’t anything to be gained from making fun of him. There’s no comedy in stories like that."
As far as the future of the show is concerned, Abid says there are no plans to take the show to television, as other Chicago Public Radio shows, like "This American Life," have done. "Wait Wait&Don’t Tell Me!" isn’t very visual, he says, its more of a "glorified lecture forum, with laughs."
"Our first devotion is to our stations in radioland," Abid says.
The Salt Lake taping of "Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me" will air Saturday, June 16 on KUER FM90 at 11 a.m.