Media criticism, humor and a career in radio were just a few of the topics addressed by National Public Radio host Peter Sagal and producer Doug Berman ’84, who spoke to a packed audience of University students, faculty and alumni last Wednesday night in Beckham Hall.
The April 16th discussion was hosted by The Wesleyan Clubs of Connecticut and the Parent’s Council, and focused on NPR’s hit weekly hour-long news quiz program, “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” In true radio fashion, Sagal, who has hosted the show since 1998, “interviewed” Berman on his experience as executive producer the day before hosting the program in front of a live audience at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.
“With this kind of program, listeners develop a certain relationship with you on the radio,” Sagal explained about touring Chicago-based “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” “[So for the audience] it’s like seeing old friends. People are not just fans of my work, but they actually think they know me; they like me. And that’s really nice!”
It is this sort of rapport that Berman had in mind when pitching the idea for the quiz show in the mid-1990s. Having produced NPR’s weekly talk show “Car Talk” since 1987, he developed an unusual penchant for prerecorded (versus live) radio in order to foster an authentic, in-the-moment style of listening and talking. Berman believes that recording allows guests to feel more at ease and be less inclined to take on a persona, as is often heard in live radio. Additionally, splicing blips and stutters out of programs like “Wait Wait” allows them to garner a relaxed, living-room type of feel.
“Get the best talent you can find, let them do what they’re best at, and then edit the hell of out of it,” he said.
A Peabody Award winner, Berman cut his teeth in radio hosting a show on WESU as an undergraduate. Broadcasting from the basement of Clark Hall, which he described as “dank, dirty, and hadn’t been cleaned in about 40 years,” he experimented with a variety of styles and topics before deciding to pursue broadcast journalism. Berman spent time as a summer intern for NPR while at Wesleyan, and, not long after graduating, became news director of Boston-based WBUR before moving on to produce programs for NPR. An American Studies major, he cites the writing and argumentation skills he learned as an undergraduate, as well as the creativity and curiosity of his peers, as key components to his success as a journalist.
The story behind Sagal’s success, however, is somewhat different.
“All I did was listen to the radio,” he said.
Sagal, a playwright, was an avid listener of public radio and auditioned to be on the quiz panel—generally made up of journalists, academics and celebrities—of “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” shortly before its debut in1998. A frequent guest on the program, he was soon asked to replace original host Dan Coffey just months after the show went on the air. The host replacement, explained Berman and Sagal, was indicative of larger underlying problems the program faced in its nascent stages.
“The show really needed to change,” Berman said. “Even today, we’re still trying to change it, to have it evolve.”
Berman, Sagal and the rest of the team behind “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” initially faced heavy criticism—from peers and listeners alike—for bringing too much of a humorous, light-hearted bent to the serious, respectable programming NPR is known for. They found it most difficult to balance the repartee of the hosts and guests with the legitimacy of the news stories the quiz show is based off of.
“With a show like ’Car Talk, it’s kind of ok to look at it as ’not a complete waste of time,’” a grinning Berman explained. “But we wanted ’Wait Wait” to be a little more than that.”
Today, the program is one of NPR’s highest-rated shows, with over 1 million listeners tuning in each week. Berman felt Wednesday’s diverse audience was not unlike “Wait Wait’s” typical listernership, and was pleased to find them replete with laughter and curiosity throughout the presentation.
“I thought the format of having two speakers playing off each other was a great idea, and it was fun to watch the audience’s—mostly parents and alums—reactions to NPR jokes,” said attendee Marianna Foos ’08.
On his return to campus, Berman spoke fondly of its beauty and close-knit sense of community, and above all the vivacity that exuded from its students.
“If I could have one dream,” Berman said, pausing with a smile, “well, it would be to be a professional baseball player. But! If I could have two dreams, the second would be to come back to Wesleyan today as a student.”
Berman’s sense of humor and innovation are likely what has propelled him, Sagal and the rest of “Wait Wait” to the popularity they now enjoy.
“They said we wouldn’t make it,” Sagal said. “But we’re still here.”