It’s the most listened to hour in public radio. And during these COVID-19 days it is recorded in Oak Park.
National Public Radio (NPR) says “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” their popular weekend morning radio show, garners its largest audience. The host, almost from its start in 1998, is Oak Parker Peter Sagal.
It’s a ritual around the house after breakfast, or people schedule their shopping trips around it, Sagal said listeners have told him about the show over the years. Now fans are saying they are “very, very grateful for the sense of normalcy.”
The NPR show, which airs on WBEZ in Chicago Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Sundays at 11 a.m., also is available as a podcast. The radio show is a tongue-in-cheek quiz program about current events. It is a way to “laugh at the news.”
Pre-COVID-19, it was recorded live-on-tape style in front of an audience at Chase Bank Auditorium in downtown Chicago, as well as on-the-road locales. These days, though, “Wait Wait …” originates from Sagal’s small converted bungalow in northeast Oak Park where he is sheltering with his wife and two dogs.
Sagal uses a broadcast-quality digital recorder, like the ones NPR journalists carry in the field, and his rotating panel and guests of the week connect virtually. Call-ins from listener contestants are pre-recorded. Bill Kurtis, longtime Chicago broadcaster (and one-time Oak Parker), joins in as judge and scorekeeper. Sagal claims to be no more tech-savvy than to have the ability to push the play and record buttons.
“I’m almost proud that I still can’t operate any equipment,” he said, after hosting the show for 22 years.
Once the program is recorded, it is digitally transferred to the show’s producers who see that it is edited and turned into the most entertaining one-hour for listeners.
For now, “Wait Wait …” is “recorded in front of an audience of no one,” as announced at the opening. They have no plans to go in front of an in-person audience until “everything is back to normal,” according to Sagal.
With the “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” home studio in Chicago previously welcoming 400-450 people per show, Sagal said doing it now with a 50-person limit isn’t worth putting panelists on planes. Tickets to in-person shows cost $30 or $85, depending on whether audience members choose general admission or premium seating, which includes a spot in the first two rows and “a tote bag of goodies.”
So Sagal’s home office, with his many books, including 200 or so signed by their authors, acoustic panels and professional microphone, are his headquarters and stage. He is also joined by a Carl Kasell bobblehead doll. Kasell was the official judge and scorekeeper of “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” from 1998 until 2014 after a 30-year career as an NPR newscaster.
“I started out in a closet but it was cramped and did not improve the acoustics,” Sagal said.
Guests from the “Quarantine Edition” range from astronaut Christina Koch to actors Tom Hanks and Don Cheadle.
There was a transition period in March before the show went fully remote. Recording artist Big Boi was scheduled for a March 14 air date. Sagal and the “Wait Wait …” team were on the road for this show, and recorded it at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, without an audience, to keep everyone safe from the spread of COVID-19.
“It will be unusual for us to make our little jokes without anyone laughing, but on the other hand, no it won’t,” Sagal quipped at the start of the show.
Another show was recorded back at the home studio in Chicago at the end of March, with fashion expert Tim Gunn as guest and panelists joining from their homes, and no audience.
Because “Wait Wait …” was originally produced out of a radio studio before moving to the live audience format, Sagal is familiar with missing out on listener reaction.
“How do I know if they’re enjoying it?” he said. “Feedback is so multifaceted. The audience will let you know if they’re annoyed, if they appreciate what you’re doing, if they want more or less of something. That influences what you do.”
In preparation for each show, Sagal does research and writes a script which goes to the producers who “punch it up.” He calls it “collaborative improvement” where he and the producers talk about how the writing can be made better, funnier.
“We are a group show, so we serve as each other’s audience and give feedback,” Sagal said. “It is a key to our success.”
From that, a script with about eight jokes is created for the show, which tapes on Thursdays. But during the program only two or three jokes get through as Sagal adjusts to what is happening in the moment. Panelists include comedians Paula Poundstone, Jessi Klein, Helen Hong, Maz Jobrani among others, as well as personalities who intersect with the news industry, such as P.J. O’Rourke, Mo Rocca and Roxanne Roberts. There are typically three panelists per program.
Sagal said what makes the show special and interesting is the spontaneity with the panelists.
These days, though he remains connected to the panel and producers virtually, it is not the same.
“It’s amazing how much I miss,” he says. He misses his colleagues, whom he calls his friends, and misses traveling for the show, which takes him on the road about once a month.
“It is the longest I have gone without sleeping in a bed that is not my own,” the lover of travel said.
And he misses live audience members.
“I want to know everyone is having a good time,” he said.
Still, by continuing the show, Sagal believes they are providing a little respite.
In the way priests handed out water and snacks during Black Lives Matter protests, Sagal sees “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” as a nourishing diversion during difficult times.