Talk radio is uniquely American, it's democratic, it's interactive, it's ... OK, OK, it's mostly Rush talking to wack-jobs on Social Security about the budget and Howard jawing with lowlifes on weed about breasts. But not completely. Further up the yak food chain, past the local politics and sports gabbers, you can find Garrison Keillor and the Car Talk guys and, if you're lucky, the gentle wit of Whad'Ya Know? and its host, Michael Feldman.
This is talk radio for the rest of us--people who like information and words, have the conventional concerns of family and work, and enjoy a little innuendo now and then.
"Our listeners read," says Feldman, a 47-year-old former English teacher who looks and sounds fully capable of being beaten up by Woody Allen. "They play racquetball. They disproportionately own foreign cars. They carry dental insurance."
When asked if his marketing people are satisfied with this following (after 10 years of national broadcasts, the show, syndicated by Public Radio International, now reaches a total of 1 million people every week via more than 200 stations), Feldman responds, "What are marketing people?"
Although such comments reflect Whad'Ya Know?'s let's-go-in-the-barn-and-put-on-a-show feel, the show is a full-time gig for Feldman, who describes his salary as "about .4 Keillor units."
The two-hour Saturday morning show airs live, usually from a 175-seat classroom at the University of Wisconsin (in Madison, where Feldman attended college and now lives with his wife and two young daughters). But sometimes Feldman takes it on the road to places like Northfield, Minn., and Springfield, Mo. The show always opens with a five-minute topical monologue ("One thing you gotta say about Congress: They can't run the government, but they've made it a federal offense to fire your travel agent.") and then segues to an interview with a guest or two (recent visitors included novelist Jane Smiley and a Democratic Party adviser who witnessed Bill Clinton and Helmut Kohl's glutton-off at a Milwaukee diner). Next comes the Whad'Ya Know? Quiz, which pairs a member of the studio audience with a caller. Quiz categories include "People," "Science," "Odds and Ends," and "Things You Should Have Learned in School (Had You Been Paying Attention)." (Sample question: Are more people injured by clothing or by razors? Answer: Clothing.) Kitschy prizes--like a book called Songs for Dogs and the People Who Love Them or a pair of underwear with the "Contract With America" printed on them--go to the winners.
There's also the phone call to an inhabitant of the "Town of the Week." The town is selected by a dart thrown at a map, and Feldman dials the town randomly until someone answers and chats with him (the feature ran eight years before he lighted upon an inhabitant who'd heard of the show). But most of the show is just Feldman pacing the audience and being funny. "It's sort of like Donahue without the issues," Feldman once told a Wisconsin magazine. "Or better yet, without Donahue."
[BLOCK QUOTE] WOMAN AUDIENCE MEMBER: How can I wean myself from sleeping with a fan?
FELDMAN: I say marry him.[END BLOCK QUOTE]
In an age when even the most seemingly spontaneous public events are in fact preceded by stacks of memos and weeks of meetings, extemporaneous entertainment like this is no mean feat. And it's no mean feat either. Unlike Howard Stern and Dave Letterman, Feldman sees to it that his foils have as much fun as he does.
[BLOCK QUOTE] FELDMAN: What's your name?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hankus Netsky.
FELDMAN: Is that the Pig Latin version? I'm being serious with you, now give me a serious answer. What's your name?
HANKUS: That's really it. ...
FELDMAN: Hankus is your actual name?
HANKUS: It's true. I was actually named Hankus because my mother ...
HANKUS' GIRLFRIEND: Tell him the truth.
FELDMAN: There can't be a good reason for it.
HANKUS: Well, let's see. ... There's a Jewish tradition of naming kids after ...
FELDMAN: Of giving kids lousy names ...
HANKUS: Actually, my mother had to name me after a relative whose name started with an "H" and she didn't like any of the American names like Howard or Harry or any of that sort of stuff, so she got this name from a cartoon show, as a matter of fact. ...
FELDMAN: What cartoon had a character named "Hankus"?
HANKUS: There was a cartoon in Philadelphia called Hankus the Horse. END BLOCK QUOTE]
At this point Feldman dials Hankus' mother in Philadelphia.
[BLOCK QUOTE] FELDMAN: Hello, Mrs. Netsky, this is Mike Feldman calling from the radio show Whad'Ya Know? with Mike Feldman. If you can answer a simple question, we have a wonderful prize for you. Got a minute?
HANKUS' MOM: Just a minute, yes.
FELDMAN: OK--the question is, "What famous cartoon horse is your son named after?"
HANKUS' MOM: Hankus the Horse. ... The nurses in the hospital when I had to fill in the certificate didn't like that. They said you've got to give him a proper name. ...
FELDMAN: They didn't think Hankus the Horse was a proper name for a baby? [END BLOCK QUOTE]
Playing the man from Mars, agog at Earthling ways, Feldman listens skeptically to a guy in the studio audience who describes himself as a "community planner" busy "coordinating a community's relationships with the state and federal government." Bearing down, Feldman gets him to admit that his real duties are to "beg for money for sewers."
But the Madison Martian will gladly play the butt of a joke if it'll help him figure out the locals. Acclimating himself to the online world in one show, he required callers to tap their words into a keyboard as they spoke. Meanwhile, he did the same with his manual typewriter.
"It's-very-nice-to-meet-you-over-the-Internet-What-do-you-look-like?" spoke/typed a caller named Julia. "Parentheses-smiling-broadly-six-foot-four-and-a-half-blond-Lutheran-type-you?" Feldman spoke/typed back.
"To communicate using only your typing skills--to me, that's a special level in hell." Besides, he confesses, "I don't like to be accessed."
Which makes public radio the perfect medium for him--and explains why the TV pilots he made failed to sell.
"The concept was for me to be a white Arsenio Hall," he says of one pilot. "I had the hardest time figuring out what that would be--not hip, not black, not up that late. It came out as Art Linkletter.
"To tell you the truth," he sighs, summing up his of life on public radio, "I don't see any way out of this."
Illustration by Nina Frenkel