For the first eight months of 2009, I was out of radio. WTIC-AM, under pressure from parent corporation CBS to dump salaries, fired both me and Diane Smith, the only non-conservative voices in the daily line-up. They replaced my afternoon drive show with a news-traffic-weather rotation that had no anchor-host or “personality. They kept it that way for almost two years, until they hired, (gulp) John Rowland.
Meanwhile, I had time on my hands. I wrote my newspaper column and blogged. I wrote longer magazine pieces. I traveled to Japan for some teaching and lecturing, and, on the way home, stopped in the Bay Area to meet with Alice Waters, right before we appeared onstage at the Connecticut Forum with Anthony Bourdain and Duff Goldman. I did a lot of other stuff too, but I felt keenly the absence of daily radio, which I had been doing since 1992.
I fielded a few queries, but the only one that really interested me was from John Dankosky at WNPR. I was a long time public radio fan and had followed closely what he had done at WNPR during the conversion of the station from primarily classical music to news and talk. (Ironic note: I had repeated conversations with WTIC management about the implication of that conversion for “our” lineup. They assured me more than once that public radio would not affect their ratings.)
By springtime, it was pretty clear to me that I wanted to build something new at WNPR, but the management there had a simple rule for me. I had to raise the start-up money. So I did, with a lot of help from my friends, especially my friend Peter Shapiro who walked me through a few important doors in the world of commerce. Two famous author friends, Luanne Rice and Wally Lamb, stepped in as underwriters during that first year, as did CBT and, of course, Dr. Jerry Rosenfeld, who had fled WTIC along with me.
The initial decision I made was that the first and last voice on the show every day should not be mine, should be a woman, should be somebody younger. I had been noticing the work of
Chion Wolf doing what is called “continuity,” a melange of time, promos, underwriting credits and weather, which runs through the day on public radio. Knowing nothing about her, I approached her about being an “announcer,” who would introduce the show every day and say a few “last words” at the end. I pictured Chion as a kind of young Joni Mitchell, and I imagined those last words as hanging mysteriously in the air.
The second important decision I made wasn’t really a decision. Dankosky and producer Catie Talarski had a young man in mind, coming off an internship, who they thought could produce the show. His name was Patrick Skahill, a scholarly young man with a vast panoply of interests and a quiet sense of humor. He was perfect. Patrick and I spent about six weeks in the summer of 2009 trying to figure out what we were going to put on the air. Meanwhile it sank in that Chion Wolf was not a young Joni Mitchell. Maybe a young Gracie Allen, a kind of old school comedian with razor sharp timing and hilarious instincts. So I started writing comic material for her, and I’m still doing that today. (Sometimes, I barely have to write. Click the blue arrow here. I deft you not to laugh.)
We went on the air Aug. 31, 2009 with Gail Collins of the New York Times and Trinity College professor Irene Papoulis as guests. First shows are almost kind of bumpy, but we got through it. It would take months to find the right rhythm and tone. So, by the way, come to our anniversary party. You’re officially invited.
The biggest surprise to me — and I suppose many others — was how little of what I had done in my 16-year commercial radio run would work on WNPR. Almost nothing was transferable. I had to teach myself a whole new way of doing radio and craft a radically different on-air persona. On WTIC, I had been a brat, a highly educated enfant terrible and Pan-like agent of chaos. Trying that on WNPR would be like asking Don Imus to host the Macneil/Lehrer News Hour. It was not to be. I began to write Chion as the Pan-like figure, which was not a stretch.
I could go on, but the history of the show’s first five years is probably more interesting to me than to anyone else. Last year Patrick decided he’d rather be a famous science reporter. Meanwhile we had discovered a new producer in our midst,
Betsy Kaplan, a former nurse with a wide-ranging curiosity and intellect very similar to Patrick’s. Betsy is now the spine and central nervous system of the show. She is what keeps us upright. We discovered, in the company’s IT department, the perfect comic foil for Chion, Greg Hill who now regularly turns up in the show intros and runs our Twitter account and is generally our fourth Beatle.
We’ve done well over 1,000 shows. We have three unspoken rules that shape our thinking:
1. One of us has to love the idea.
2. Somehow, we have to challenge the material in a way it is not typically challenged.
3 We’re not really into rules.
Also, “Ape not kill ape,” but that’s more like a guideline.
This left the door open to all sorts of choices. We did a show set in 2033. We did a “What If This Isn’t Reality?” show about the question of whether we’re living in some kind of hologrammic simulation. We did a show about the heart transplant of radio newswoman Beth Bradley. We did a show — I can barely explain this one — about what it would be like to have no capacity for language, any language, including sign language. A show about pi, a show about infinity, a show (ahead of its time) about the scientific uses of origami. Shows about nerds, snobs and high school debaters. (I think Mark Oppenheimer was on all three of those.) We did a show about three famous Harriets (Beecher Stowe, Tubman and the Spy) with Harriet Jones guest-handling announcer duties. We did salutes to musical instruments: the banjo (Bela Fleck and Noam Pikelny both contributed), the harmonica, the ukulele (Jake Shimabukuro and other virtuosos performed in studio) and most recently an amazing all accordion show. I don’t know why, but I often think of our salute to whistling as the most nearly perfect show we’ve ever done.
We did a salute to urine.
One of our best days ever was a full hour with the wild Jill Sobule singing and talking in studio. Other live performances included The Punch Brothers, Mike Doughty and Meklit Hadero. Grayson Hugh, the musician I have loved the longest, has visited many times and wrote a song for us. One of the shows dearest to our hearts was the hour we spent with his father, Ivor, whose story was basically the history of broadcasting in Connecticut. Ivor died two months later. I’ve done long-form interviews with Thomas Moore (twice), Philippe Petit, Peter Tork, and Paul Winter. Get ready for one with jazz legend and “Schoolhouse Rock” creator Bob Dorough. That’s already in the can, and it’s great. It’ll run on Sept. 9, one day after our full-show interview with (gasp) Sir Tom Stoppard in front of a live audience.
Speaking of Tork, one of our peculiar memories is a show about Boy Bands for which we invented a fake group called Next In Line (Patrick’s name) who rehearsed a song called “Food Court Love,” written by me and Chion (but I think the title might have been Oppenheimer’s idea). Click the arrow.
We turned Wally Lamb, Eric Danton and Joan Holiday into a long-running and much beloved panel of “music mavens” who introduce the audience to new songs and (ruefully) dissect the thorny subject otherwise known as the Song of the Summer. We turned Bill Curry and comedian Julia Pistell into an annual pair of March Madness handicappers. (Julia uses indices such as the food most popular near each college.) We started taking the show each year to the Berkshire International Film Festival (with guests such as Karen Allen, Peter Reigert and Jim Bouton) and the New Haven International Festival of Pancakes, Art and Ideas.
We’ve got big plans in the immediate future to do our first-ever show from New York City (at the trendy Subculture). Also on our wish list, shows from the Philip Johnson Glass House and from the Barnum Musem.
Along the way, we invented some new forms. I wanted to do a regular show where I picked the panelists first and then figured out the topics later (the reverse of the way public radio likes to operate). Thus was born The Nose, a free-wheeling Friday show that has spawned a new generation of Connecticut radio favorites: Papoulis, Jacques Lamarre, Rand Cooper, James Hanley, Theresa Cramer, Tracy Wu Fastenberg, Luis Figueroa, Jim Chapdelaine, Duby McDowell, Patty McQueen, Carolyn Paine …. well the list, as they say, goes on and on. When Patrick left us, Betsy and I went to work on making our Monday episode more time-sensitive and keyed to topics that bubbled up over the weekend, as opposed to something we’d been working on for six days. We now call that The Scramble, usually based on a three-topic conversation with one “super-guest” (like Frank Rich or Anna Sale) and two newsy segments.
We’ve forged longstanding partnerships with a group of regular contributors who include experimental philosopher Jonathan Keats, writers Lev Grossman and Brian Francis Slattery, America’s Greatest Living Film Critic and America’s Auxiliary Break Glass In Case of Emergency Greatest Living Film Critic, writer Amanda Hess, two different people named Steve Metcalf, and pretty much everybody from Slate, especially June Thomas and Dahlia Lithwick. We were lucky enough to have Mike Pesca follow us pretty much from the start. Speaking of Pesca, he is amused not only by our successes but by our failures, in which we take a certain improbable pride. Sometimes we do a show — one on toast and one on spoons come to mind — because the idea seems like such a bad one that we can’t resist trying. Sometimes those really are bad ideas. See above. Or ask Pesca.
We’ve had great interns. Lydia Brown basically took over our show for one glorious summer during her steady ascent to become, eventually, a Galadriel-like figure who rules gently over the universe. That’s why we did a show on the “deep web” before anybody else was talking about it. Right now, Josh Nilaya is a kind of fifth Beatle, developing shows on his own. And a special shout out to Jules Lefebvre for his voice work on this memorable intro.
Daily radio shows are hard. It’s not the effort of any one show. It’s the cumulative drain. Mr. Dankosky and I (and now Pesca) understand this in a way a person who hasn’t lived it cannot. Your best work expires in 24 hours, and the crowing demand for something new begins, really, about five minutes after you sign off.
So you need amazing people. I need Betsy and Chion and Greg and Josh and executive producer Catie Talarski. I need my co-workers Mr. Dankosky, Lydia, Tucker Ives, ace newsman Jeff Cohen, Sir Ray Hardman, and the rest of the great WNPR news staff. And Gene Amatruda, who is basically Spock, Scotty, Geordi and Data rolled into one, if Starfleet Command had been a little more open to plaid flannel.
It’s odd. People still tell me they miss that crazy guy from WTIC. I miss him too. He was probably closer to the afflatus of my true comic Muse than anything I will ever do. But I didn’t really belong there. It wasn’t home. This is home. The people I work with, the people who lay themselves out to do this impossible show, they’re home. As somebody said, this must be the place.
Guess I must be having fun.