Peter Sagal likes to mention that he has no radio experience, and the host of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, National Public Radio’s “oddly informative news quiz,” isn’t kidding. When Sagal began hosting in 1998—just months after the show began—he had considerable experience in theater and as a writer, but none in radio. Only on a show like Wait Wait would such a risk pay off; although ostensibly a news-quiz show (with guest panelists, callers, and scorekeeper Carl Kasell, who’s also a legendary NPR broadcaster), Wait Wait resembles a distant radio cousin of The Daily Show. Since Sagal took over, the show has spread to more than 350 NPR stations, with an audience of roughly two million listeners. This week, the show celebrates the one-year anniversary of its switch from a studio-based format to live-audience tapings at the Chase Auditorium downtown. The A.V. Club spoke to Sagal before the anniversary show.
The A.V. Club: You recently re-listened to the first show you hosted in May 1998. How was that?
Peter Sagal: It was a little painful. First of all, I have no qualifications to be doing this job. None. I had no training, no experience, no real ambition other than that vague sense of, “I could be on the radio! I’m smarter than these people. Why don’t they give me my own radio show?” So listening to that, I was struck by how little we knew, at that time, about how to get a show like this across on the radio. None of us had ever done this before. I had no idea what I was doing. Have I mentioned that?
AVC: Did your theater background help?
PS: It’s not so much specific skills—I’ve always had this preternatural skill for enunciating, which people have made fun of me about—but it’s mainly about how this actually works and what’s important in radio. For example, having come from the theater, one of the values I had was novelty: I wanted it to be different every week. In the theater, you can’t repeat yourself. If you do, you’re done. You’re in a rut. One of the things I discovered about radio is that people want the same thing every week. They want a level of familiarity, and if you think about who has been successful in radio, that’s absolutely true. Take Howard Stern. What would people think if they turned on Howard Stern in the morning and he was discussing great books with Mortimer Adler?
AVC: What were you feeling when you started the show?
PS: There was really this sense of “Anything goes.” I remember a meeting that I had with the staff at that time; we looked around and said, “What do we want to do with this? Do we want to have a serious quiz in which have people call in and actually try to give answers? Or are we just going to screw around and have a good time?” And we all decided to screw around and have a good time.
AVC: It seems like there have been a few turning points over the years, but you’ve said your post-September 11 show was probably the biggest.
PS: People responded overwhelmingly. We had less than half the audience we do now—maybe about 700,000 listeners—but people wrote in, and they were like, “Thank you so much.” That’s been a consistent message at that time and since then: People appreciate what we do, and we actually, in this sort of stupid way, serve this purpose. People need a break from the week’s news. They need somebody on the radio to say the things they’re shouting at the radio.
AVC: What changes have you noticed in the show since you started taping with a live audience?
PS: I think the show has gotten sharper, because when you just tell a joke in a vacuum to each other, you imagine the world listening: “Is that going to be too weird? Is that going to be too hard?” But if you tell a joke and the audience laughs, then it’s okay, because it’s obviously funny. “Hey, it’s okay we called President Bush a lowly worm! It’s fine! They laughed!” We can get away with more stuff. Ask any humorist: It’s all about what you can get away with, and all of a sudden we can get away with a lot more.
AVC: The big news at WBEZ lately has been the decision to switch to an all-talk format. What effect do you think that will have?
PS: A lot of the response that I read on the Internet blogs of the BEZ change is, “Well, I don’t listen to these programs, but it’s important that BEZ broadcast them.” According to this thinking, public radio should be broadcasting shows so incredibly obscure and dislikeable that only the host listens to them. That’s the ideal. I think BEZ is going to make this change, there will be people who are genuinely upset, and there will be people who are upset because, in principle, they believe that Chicago Public Radio shouldn’t be paying attention to what people want to hear. Then I think it will pass, and I think BEZ will continue its tradition of really excellent public programming.