Coming to a Theater Near You: Radio Shows

NPR's quiz show 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!' gets in on the latest trend in radio: visuals

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Ryan Muir for NPR

Steve Martin and the cast of 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me' during a May 2, 2013, taping

The May 2, 2013, taping of the public radio news-trivia show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me was much like any other in its 15-year history. A panel of comedians riffed on current hot topics—this week, openly gay athletes and how to get horses to participate in psych studies. A celebrity guest—Steve Martin for this particular show—answered questions about his career and participated in a quiz. After the show is edited, it’ll air over the weekend. All in all, a typical taping of the weekly show.

Except not.

The microphones that always capture Wait Wait were joined by nine cameras, recording what was the first-ever life cinecast of the show. The program was broadcast live—meaning, no tape delay in Eastern and Central time zones—to select movie theaters around the U.S. and Canada, where Wait Wait fans could actually see how the show is put together. It’s an experiment that brings the show in line with one of the latest trends in public radio, already familiar to fans of shows like This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion. By Experience, the company that coordinated the satellite transmission for the event, used an impressive fleet of satellite trucks parked outside the theater, from which the signal was beamed 23,000 miles up and then back down to cineplexes.

Movie theaters, think some, are the next frontier for the previously ears-only experience of radio. It’s a frontier with no shortage of obstacles, and new enough that more are still being discovered—but the the Wait Wait team is guessing that the rewards can be worth it.

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“I think it will be really weird, and I say this from long personal experience, for everybody to find out what we look like, especially myself,” host Peter Sagal told TIME, joking that he had considered wearing gold lamé or a Gaga-style meat dress. “Nobody listens to me for the first 30 seconds I’m speaking to them, because they’re just coping with the fact that my voice is coming out of this head. ‘Oh my God,’ they’re thinking to themselves, ‘he doesn’t sound bald!’”

Fashion dilemmas aren’t the only challenge radio-on-the-big-screen faces, especially for a show like Wait Wait, which was taped in New York, for its proximity to the production company, rather than it’s regular home stage in Chicago.  For one thing, even though every episode has a live audience, the show has no set to speak of.

“It’s really pretty boring. It’s two podiums and a table. There’s nothing to look at,” says senior producer Mike Danforth. “We wanted to make sure that if we do this for cinema, we make it easy on people, so they’re not just disappointed that it looks like the Charlie Rose show on a movie screen.”

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At the same time, Danforth says, they had to be careful not to get “circus-like” or try to become a different show; the set they decided upon was a modern-looking update on the podiums set-up. Another step they took was to get a live band (the always funky Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings) to play the show’s music—which presented yet another logistical challenge, since the panelists had never before shared the stage with musicians.

Additionally, the camera operators required a rehearsal—something the improv-heavy show doesn’t normally do—even though they’d have to wing it on the day of. It’s also a challenge for the folks on stage to be separated from a large portion of their live audience, says Sagal. He makes subtle adjustments to the show based on audience reaction but will have no way to know if his tone isn’t working on the screen.

(One big difference between seeing the show live and seeing it in a movie theater: with the latter, there’s no injunction against acting like you do at home, yelling out the answers. “I think people in movie theaters can do whatever they want, subject to the violent retaliation of the other people in the movie theater,” says Sagal.)

There’s also the macro-level challenge of preserving the magic of radio. “People have a really intimate relationship with the people they hear on the radio. More so I think than TV. I think you feel very connected to TV but it’s a glass box. You sit in front of it,” says Sagal. “There’s never any illusion, unless you’re crazy, that the people on TV are talking directly to you. But most people feel that the people on the radio are talking directly to them.” Listeners accustomed to hearing Wait Wait while they do dishes or drive around had to adjust their expectations, and the Wait Wait crew had to anticipate that adjustment.

All of those logistical and theoretical challenges were part of the reason that it took the Wait Wait crew about four years to make the cinecast happen.

Another reason for the delay is the economics on the other end: until recently, few movie theaters had the capacity to host such an event. Theater owners resisted investing in digital projectors until studios stopped delivering 35 mm prints, says By Experience’s Julie Borchard-Young. That dynamic has only changed within the last decade. “It’s ramped up in the last few years,” she says. “With each event that we’ve distributed there have been more and more cinemas wanting to participate.” As that number increases, radio fans are more likely to see similar events becoming common.

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As theater capabilities expand, Borchard-Young predicts that more radio shows will come to movie theaters—and not just because they have the equipment. Despite all the stress of switching mediums, the payoff can be worth it for the show. Because Wait Wait does about a dozen live road shows each year, they are inundated with requests from NPR affiliates to come to various towns. They can’t always fulfill those requests, but a cinecast allows the member stations to plan events for listeners anyway, reinforcing their fan base and—since this is public radio—hopefully attracting memberships and donations. “A station in Fort Worth can rent out a movie theater and, hopefully, get people to spend money and have treats and whatever,” says Danforth. “It’s less about any revenue for us than it is about getting into markets that we can’t really travel to.” According to Borchard-Young, many of the more than 600 theaters showing the cinecast had sold out in advance. 

And for fans who didn’t make it to a theater (or to an encore broadcast next week), there’s always the radio you don’t have to see. “The cinecast will be edited on Friday and turned into our regular radio show,” says Danforth. “On Saturday it will sound just like, hopefully, a regular show.”