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My Decade in Radioland

Adam FelberTales from America's favorite NPR quiz show, Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!

By Adam Felber (A'89)


y the time you read this, Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! will have been on the air for 10 years. My tenth anniversary with the show will come shortly after that. It really has been an incredible decade, for lots of reasons. For one, I've traveled to all sorts of exotic locations, like Honolulu and Akron. But most of all, the hosts, staff, and panelists on the show have become more than friends. No, not in that way, and shame on you for thinking it. I mean we've become a strange sort of family—a family where you have to be dependably funny just to stay in the clan, but a family nonetheless. Hell, Carl Kasell married me.

More on that in a minute.

If you've never heard of Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!, you deserve a quick explanation. Wait Wait is a weekly news-oriented quiz show that airs on National Public Radio on weekends. It's hosted by Peter Sagal, and the venerable anchor Carl Kasell, the voice of NPR's top-of-the-hour morning newscasts, is our official judge, scorekeeper, and resident impressionist. Each show features three panelists (from our group of about 10) and several callers. Nominally, we panelists are competing with each other as we answer various questions about the news. But really, our job is to be insightful and entertaining to the best of our ability, and to be convivial with the fans who call up to play our games.

The panelists are an eclectic bunch of characters, from noted journalists (like sportswriter Charlie Pierce, Washington Post style section writer Roxanne Roberts, Kyrie O'Connor of the Houston Chronicle, and "Ask Amy" advice columnist Amy Dickenson), to literary lions (like Atlantic Monthly correspondent P.J. O'Rourke, humorist Roy Blount Jr., and author and radio commentator Tom Bodett), to beloved funnymen and funnywomen (like the political satirist Mo Rocca and the stand-up comic Paula Poundstone), to … um … me. Hmm. Looking at it that way, I'm not quite sure why I'm on the show in the first place. Some sort of outreach program, perhaps.

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eople often ask me what it's like to be a panelist on the show. "Adam," they say, "how do you make the magic happen, week after week after week?" My ritual for a typical appearance on Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me! goes something like this:

Wednesday afternoon. I begin to read for the show. My reading is done almost exclusively online, and I favor websites organized so that I can absorb the most headlines per minute. I take mental notes about the stories that seem likely to be on the show. This is in contrast to Roxanne Roberts, who takes compact and thorough physical notes, and who is always disconcerted when I make a display of leaning over and "surreptitiously" cribbing from them during the show. This is also in contrast to Paula Poundstone, who occasionally takes much less compact physical notes, resulting in a pile of papers that are useless in the "lightning round" situation for which they are intended.

Anyway, I don't take notes. But I try to cover things systematically: News, political news, entertainment news, and a liberal helping of odd, obscure, and/or bizarre news. At some point on Wednesday we all receive an email from the producer, Mike Danforth, detailing the subject of this week's "Bluff the Listener," a segment in which a caller tries to identify which of three outrageous news stories is real. The email also says who among us will be telling the real story and who will be writing fraudulent stories. I am almost never given the real story.

Thursday morning. I awake before dawn. I am unhappy, because I am awake before dawn. My wife is also unhappy for the same reason, but she takes me to the airport and then returns to bed. I grumble my way through post-9/11 security, showing inadequate gratitude to the curt heroes intent on saving me from my own exploding shoes and combustible bottled water.

Thursday afternoon. I arrive at my hotel in Chicago, usually still in a foul mood because I am incapable of sleeping on airplanes.

"The crowds actually do go wild. It's as close to being a rock star as a balding, somewhat, um, 'solidly built' guy like me is ever going to get."

Thursday evening. I arrive at the theater, close to two hours before showtime. My mood suddenly lifts, the fatigue falls away, and the world is in color again. We panelists greet each other and the Wait Wait staff, and sit down to a backstage meal and a desperate scramble to write "Bluff the Listener" fake stories … because none of us ever, ever manages to have written one beforehand. Sometime during this process Peter Sagal and Carl Kasell arrive, usually accompanied by Mike Danforth, senior producer Rod Abid, assistant producer Emily Ecton, director Melody Kramer, and on occasion, all the way from Cambridge, our executive producer, Doug "The Subway Fugitive, Not a Slave to Fashion, Bongo Boy" Berman. That's when the party truly gets started. We're generally joking, laughing, (still) desperately writing, and warning each other to "save it for the show" right up until the moment we prance onto the stage while the crowd goes wild.

And they actually do go wild. It's as close to being a rock star as a balding, somewhat, um, "solidly built" guy like me is ever going to get. (continued)

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Profile written by Adam Felber (A'89)

Photos by James Glader

This story ran online on Mar. 3, 2008. It originally appeared in the Winter 2008 edition of Tufts Magazine.