Time for another addition to my “Allison in Madison” category, in which I highlight something unique about my hometown. In a previous entry, I talked about the impending departure of Oscar Mayer from our fair city. This time around, I talk about another notable Madison institution that is about to depart… the airwaves.
I don’t believe I’ve previously brought up this topic very much on this blog, but my radio is regularly (though admittedly not exclusively) tuned into a public radio station. No, please don’t consider me a snob and an elitist; it’s just that I appreciate radio content that doesn’t underestimate its audience’s intelligence level. That’s something that you don’t really get from other (commercial-oriented) stations on the dial. Just sayin’.
Anyway, the public radio outlet here in our fair state, Wisconsin Public Radio, produces its fair share of outstanding programming recognized both in Wisconsin and nationwide. One of those programs is Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know? The show has been a Saturday morning fixture since its modest beginnings in June 1985, and originates almost every week from Madison’s Monona Terrace (a place that will merit its own “Allison in Madison” post when I get around to it). And while you think public broadcasting is meant only for an elite, opera- and symphony-loving audience, Whad’Ya Know? runs counter to that. It’s quite irreverent in its humor and topics (even its official website URL, NotMuch.com, is a part of that), and it connects to people from all walks of life, especially the common folk who are delivering the mail, doing yard work, or shuttling the kids to soccer practice during the two hours Whad’Ya Know? airs every Saturday morning.
So, you ask, what’s the show’s humor like? Well, let’s give a little bit of a segment rundown:
- There’s the friendly call-and-response between host Michael Feldman and his audience that opens every show (“Well… whad’ya know?” “Not much! You?!”).
- There’s “All the News That Isn’t,” in which Michael parodies real-life events with fake headlines. Some of the jokes, to be honest, do fall flat; still, they do have a satirical bite that makes you think how absurd the world can be.
- There’s the first-hour interviews Michael conducts with various celebrities, authors, or other noted intellectuals. While the interviews can be lengthy, it’s clear to the audience and listeners that Michael takes a keen interest in who the guest is and what they’re talking about.
- There’s the music, featuring a simple, easy-going jazz style from John Thulin on piano, Jeff Hamann on bass, and, when the show’s on the road, Clyde Stubblefield on drums. It’s perfect for taking the work week off your mind on a Saturday.
- There’s the “Town of the Week,” where even the littlest and most remote of burgs can have their day in the sun.
- There’s “Thanks for the Memos,” where listeners send in actual work memos that are unintentionally funny.
- And there’s the quiz. Of course there’s the quiz; it’s the reason the show’s called Whad’Ya Know? after all. Take one audience member. Pair them with a caller. Throw at them wittily written questions from six categories. Give each of them a modest yet nice prize package if they win (no five-digit monetary jackpots here). What results is a chance for people to be just who they are by knowing just what they know.
But more than all those segments, there’s Michael Feldman, his quirky brand of humor, and is interaction with the live audience. Sure, Michael has been the host since Day 1 of Whad’Ya Know? but you definitely get the sense that he willingly and happily shares the spotlight with those seeing the show in person as well as those listening on the radio and calling in to participate. That’s why Michael takes time before each quiz segment to venture into the audience and converse on-air with the audience. His name may be in the title and he may be “producer international,” but as he so succinctly put it, “it’s really the audience’s show. They are 90 percent of the show.” It’s the rhythm of Michael’s humor and his interplay with the audience that has put both him and Whad’Ya Know? in valid comparison to Groucho Marx and You Bet Your Life.
Unfortunately, there won’t be many more opportunities for the audience to be part of Whad’Ya Know? Wisconsin Public Radio announced the cancellation of the show in March. While ratings for the show has gone down the past few years, likely an effect of fewer public radio outlets airing the show (it’s distributed nationally by Public Radio International), the cancellation news still came as quite of a shock, not only to its loyal listeners (it’s still very popular here in the Badger State) but to Michael Feldman himself. And, no, not even an attempt to revamp the show and convert it to a Wisconsin-only focus could sway WPR to reverse its decision. As Feldman told the Wisconsin State Journal back in March…
“It’s too closely identified with my life… It’s hard to separate the show from my life, especially when you’re told you’re not needed anymore. I put my eggs in one basket. But it was a good basket and a good egg.”
And so, Whad’Ya Know? will air its final first-run show on Saturday morning, June 25, just a month and a half from this writing. After that… who knows? Michael Feldman has said he’s not thinking about retirement, though the door is still slightly open to return to WPR and do “[something] that makes sense to them [WPR brass].” WPR, from what I’ve noticed, hasn’t announced any replacement on its schedule for Whad’Ya Know? Speaking as a Wisconsinite, I fear WPR will replace it with something produced somewhere other than Wisconsin… meaning that a real hallmark of Wisconsin broadcasting (public broadcasting or otherwise) may be replaced by some generically-produced show from somewhere outside the Badger State… something that may very well not connect with an audience as well as Whad’Ya Know? has with its audience since its first broadcast in June 1985.
But as disappointing as the cancellation of Whad’Ya Know? has been, at least Michael Feldman has taken the high road. He’s joked about future possibilities, from an internet show to whatever else. He has been appreciative to WPR for the opportunity. And, just as he has been appreciative toward his live audiences, he has been also grateful for the online support and outpouring of gratitude from listeners.
So, if you have the chance, and if you have some time between 10AM and 12 Noon (Central Time) every Saturday morning between now and June 25, take some time time to listen in to Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know? The best bet, if you’re not sure which public radio station in your area carries the show, is to listen to the WPR online stream (the show is on the “Ideas Network” stream). If and when you do, you’re in for two hours of witty fun, good music, funny quizzes… and a genial host who makes the whole thing gel by putting the spotlight on people being themselves.