At its peak, Whad’Ya Know? had more than 1.5 million listeners.
When Michael Feldman got to Wisconsin Public Radio on Thursday, he was called into a meeting, only to learn that the station was ending the 31-year run of his comedy quiz show, Whad’Ya Know?
“It was a done deal: You have three months to clean out your desk. I was surprised,” says Feldman. “I was sort of in a coma.”
The press release had already been written, announcing a final live show on June 25, with a blank space where Feldman’s comments would appear.
Feldman provided a gracious quote for the release, which was circulated to the press late Thursday afternoon. “It’s the listeners at home and those who show up that make the show. I am just a conduit,” Feldman wrote.
Mike Arnold, associate director and director of content at WPR, says the decision was “incredibly difficult,” citing precipitous declines in the national audience for the show. “Carriage on stations has declined anywhere from 60% to 67%,” says Arnold. The press announcement points out that at its peak, Whad’Ya Know? had more than 1.5 million listeners on more than 300 stations. Now it is closer to 100.
The station hasn’t yet decided what will replace the show, which aired from 10 a.m. to noon CST on Saturdays.
Isthmus spoke to Feldman — a former WORT volunteer and English teacher at Madison’s Malcolm Shabazz City High School — about his reaction to the news, his love affair with the audience and his hopes that he will someday host a show with a similar format.
You were very gracious in the press release. Are you obligated to say only nice things right now?
No, I can say whatever I want.
Were you ready for this?
I wasn’t ready. It’s like your skin — you get used to it. I feel bad, and I felt bad for my audience as much as me. I have no particular expertise, other than the ability to make weird associations. The show was about the audiences and what they say and how they react, and I’m grateful. I’m in my third generation of listeners: parents, and now kids and grandkids who were forced to listen while being schlepped to soccer. There’s a lot of people who have bucket-list missions to see the show. How can they tear apart a family?
Has there been a lot of audience outrage since this announcement?
Yeah, there’s been a deluge. People started writing on our Facebook page, and my daughter Ellie got involved, and started answering people, saying to write the station [“My dad is NOT ready to retire and lord knows he already spends way too much time with our dog, Bella!”] Last I heard the email was broken, so that’s either good or bad.
What would you like to happen now?
I suggested that the problem is that national carriage is down, but there’s no reason we can’t take it back to Wisconsin. We might have to slim down, but it’s much cheaper to do a Wisconsin show. We have an audience.
What kind of reaction did you get to that suggestion?
I think the feeling is that the era is passed.
Looking back, what was your favorite part of hosting the show?
It’s the audience. I’m really embarrassingly emotional about it. I go up before the show and there are people eating doughnuts and they’re with their 87-year-old mother. I’m so glad to be part of their lives. They say you can’t take the audience home with you, but in a sense you do. It’s like your extended family.
You’ve had some astounding guests over the years: Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Anne Lamott. Who stands out for you?
My personal favorite would be Kurt Vonnegut. I taught his books as a high school English teacher: Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse 5. To talk to him about his background and how he got into writing — “To feed my goddamn family” — I love that. He was just hilarious. That was a big one. I always like talking to Calvin Trillin, someone with a drier wit than me.
What do you see in your future?
I’d like to keep working, and I’ve only had two offers: Bethel food pantry; the only thing I thought of was giving something back. And somebody said crossing guards — they get disability, health insurance. I still have a taxi license. And a teaching license. But I really would like to host a show. I hope to be back in one form or another.