Bill Virgin's Radio Beat June 19, 2008

Includes archive of Bill Virgin's columns fromJ une 2006 - March 2009

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat June 19, 2008

Postby radiofan » Wed Jun 18, 2008 9:11 pm

On Radio: Popular NPR news quiz show comes to Seattle

Author, playwright, screenwriter, competitive runner, extra in a Michael Jackson video -- Pete Sagal has had what might euphemistically be termed a varied career.

"Haven't I, though?" he says in a telephone interview. "I'm kind of proud of that, actually."

He has reason to be proud of one other entry in his resume -- host of one of National Public Radio's most popular programs, "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!," the weekly comedy program disguised as a news quiz that airs locally at 10 a.m. Saturdays on KUOW-FM/94.9

"Wait Wait," which also features NPR newsman Carl Kasell and a rotating cast of panelists (including Paula Poundstone, Tom Bodett, P.J. O'Rourke and Roy Blount Jr.), just marked its 10th year on the air and won a prestigious Peabody Award.

"Wait Wait" normally is based in Chicago, but the show is coming to Seattle to record an episode June 26 at the Paramount (the performance is already sold out). The show will air June 28. Poundstone, Paul Provenza and Adam Felber will be the panelists; the special guest (from Seattle) hasn't been announced yet.

This is the second appearance for "Wait Wait" in Seattle. Given its enthusiastic reception then, as well as its strong performance on KUOW, "It's been too long since we've been back," says Sagal, who has another connection to the city -- as a playwright, he's had his work produced at Seattle Repertory Theatre ("What to Say").

In fact, it was while working as a playwright that Sagal was tapped to be a panelist on the first broadcast of "Wait Wait" in 1998. When the original host left shortly thereafter, Sagal was given what he calls a battlefield promotion, perhaps for no better reason than "he seems hosty," even though "prior to this show I had no radio experience or background or qualifications."

Sagal wasn't counting on a long run. He figured, "This will be a really fun way to while away the time," and to get medical insurance. But in fact "the show got really successful" and Sagal "proved to be better at it than anybody assumed I would be, given my lack of resume."

One reason for the show's success is its ability to find celebrities who understand the show's tone and can play along. Is it tough to find people who are both famous and funny? "Surprisingly not," Sagal says. "Everybody wants to be funny. I don't think there's a person on the planet who wouldn't stoop to being amusing."

It helps that "Wait Wait" doesn't bother with the obvious questions, leading it to some unexpected tangents and territory. A segment with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer devolved into a discussion of whether high-court judges have to provide their own robes.

"Generally speaking we are not a 'gotcha' show," Sagal adds. That's not to say that, efforts to remain nonpartisan notwithstanding, the show doesn't leave some listeners claiming to be offended. "It's always a difficult line, and every week, as far as at least one listener is concerned, we walk over it."

Sagal last year had his first book published ("The Book of Vice: Naughty Things and How to Do Them"); he continues to write essays for "All Things Considered" and is a gear columnist for the magazine Runner's World. One aspect of his career that has taken a hit is playwriting. "I'm a victim of success," he says. "I could probably have a playwriting career and a family or I could have a playwriting career and a job. But I haven't been able to have a playwriting career, a family and a job."

Then there's that short-lived career as a music-video extra. In answer to the obvious question -- which Michael Jackson video -- Sagal was cast as an extra for "Remember the Time;" unfortunately for him, his scene was never filmed. "I hope that's not the highlight of my career but it's the one people are most interested in," he says.

As for "Wait Wait," Sagal is not expecting any big changes for the show. "Right now we're having so much fun, it's hard to imagine how to improve it" -- other than, he adds, getting Bill Clinton or George Bush to agree to appear.

In other radio notes:

Lizz Sommars' guests on "Conversations" at 6 a.m. Sunday on KISW-FM/99.9, KKWF-FM/100.7 and KMTT-FM/103.7 and 7 a.m. Sunday on KNDD-FM/107.7 include Bob Sullivan, author of "Gotcha Capitalism."

Jim Wilke's "Jazz Northwest" at 1 p.m. Sunday on KPLU-FM/88.5 features a recent performance by the Seattle quartet Ziggurat.

P-I reporter Bill Virgin can be reached at 206-448-8319 or

Bill Virgin's Radio Beat, Thursdays in the Seattle P-I
Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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