Public radio’s popular Whad’Ya Know?, headlined by creator-producer-host Michael Feldman, comes to the Holland Performing Arts Center for a live, two-hour road show Aug. 13. Produced by Wisconsin Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International, Whad’Ya Know? calls home base the Monona Terrace in Madison.
Eight times a year cast and crew leave the friendly confines to take their melange of talk, topical humor, quiz show and jazz sets on the road. Saturday marks their second Omaha stop in a decade. KIOS, which airs the show here, is sponsoring the appearance, plus a post-show VIP reception, as a fund raiser for its listener-supported programming.
Watching radio can be a treat or a let down for fans who usually only hear it.
“People seem to like it when they come,” says Feldman. “They always say, ‘Boy, it’s much better in person.’ That’s what I get a lot. That, and, ‘You’re not nearly as homely as you sound on the air.’ You’re either too short or too tall or you’re ‘exactly like I thought you were.’ All of them are insulting, actually.”
The cult of personality that attends radio lies in the imagination. The figure behind the voice becomes whomever the listener conjures.
Radio’s known to attract its share of quirky talking heads. As a former English teacher and cabbie, Feldman qualified as a misfit with a dubious skill set when he fell into radio in 1977. WORT’s Jack Mitchell discovered him. Feldman left for Chicago’s mega-WGN, but returned when Mitchell greenlighted Whad’Ya Know.
He’s hardly a model of charisma with his smart-alecky, neurotic, quasi-authoritative persona. He expresses opinions on news items in one-liner monologue-style, but you won’t mistake him for a blow-hard or an expert. He’s certainly not a hyper AM shock jock or zenned-out FM host, either.
Instead, he’s a cross between acerbic Groucho Marx and wry Dick Cavett. Feldman engages audiences with ironical, quick-witted, verbally adroit, ad-libbed responses that needle. He says he fits squarely in the “Jewish, rapid-fire, wise-cracking tradition,” adding, “The closest to me was my father, who was sort of like that. He was very funny and did a lot of asides, like little jokes to the camera, only I was the camera when I was a kid. So, to me, it’s Dave Feldman humor.”
When you suggest he stops just short of disparaging people during bits like the Whad’Ya Know Quiz, he begs to differ.
“You know, honestly, I think if you did a content analysis of it you’d see there’s very little insulting or even coming up to insulting. A nudge is much different than an insult. A nudge is where you can say something to someone that has a little spin to it, a little meaning to it. That’s called nudging. But it’s more playfulness. I’m a ‘nudgist,’ I guess.”
And a mensch. This gentle provocation is where he shines and sometimes even falls flat. An awkward pause can make good radio, too. It’s all in the timing and the comeback. Sharp repartee is where the show lives.
“That’s the long and the short of it, that’s what makes it work or doesn’t,” he says. “But usually it works and it’s totally because of the interactions of the people who come or call in; occasionally the people I’m interviewing, but mostly it’s the rank and file. It’s an audience-driven show, so my skill if I have any is getting it out of them. That’s what I consider my job to be.”
If there’s a template for this coaxing, teasing interplay, he says it’s the live performer who fixes on ripe-for-the-picking targets with lines like: “Hey, where you from?” A beat. “Is she really with you?’ And that’s sort of what I do,” he says. “It’s embarrassing, but I’m like a nightclub singer doing patter. Singling out people in the audience and giving them a hard time or whatever. It’s somewhat along those lines I must admit.”
Making it all resonate with 1.4 million regular listeners, as Feldman does, is quite a feat. “I don’t want to jinx it, but it’s been going 25 years, which is really unbelievable.”
The team of Feldman, announcer Jim Packard, musical coordinator-band leader John Thulin, bassist Jeff Hamann and drummer Clyde Stubblefield, enjoys amazing continuity. “We’ve only had one change in all this time,” says Feldman.
The whole gang will be here for the 9:30 a.m. Omaha program. The show goes live at 10 a.m. Feldman will be armed with plenty of Omaha tidbits by then. Researching where the show tours is a process he enjoys.
“It’s stimulating because you try and actually learn about where you’re going, so it’s really quite interesting and as a matter of fact I like it very much. I don’t have a feel yet for what’s making Omaha tick, but I intend to find out.”
Helping him flesh out the Omaha zeitgeist will be some special guests: Omaha World-Herald cartoonist Jeffrey Koterba, whose memoir Inklings has been well-received; and musician Tim Kasher, best known for his work with the bands Cursive and The Good Life, and now with a new solo album out, The Game of Monogamy.
Show tickets range from $25 to $45 through Ticket Omaha. VIP tickets are $100. Call 402-557-2558 or visit www.kios.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com