That is the question

By Lawrence Cosentino

Michael Feldman’s ‘Whad’Ya Know?’ comes to MSU

It doesn’t worry Michael Feldman that Jay Leno already came to cheer up morose Michigan in April. “It didn’t work, eh? I’m not sure Jay Leno’s the guy,” he said, during a recent phone interview.

Feldman will get his shot Saturday with a live national broadcast of his NPR comedy-quiz-talk show “Whad’Ya Know?” from the MSU Auditorium. “I’ll do whatever it takes,” Feldman said gamely.

For the 24-year run of “Whad’Ya Know?” Feldman has scampered among radio’s dominant talk-show shouters, like a tree shrew among dinosaurs, reaching 300 NPR stations with two hours of witty banter, quirky Q&A and tinkling jazz that recall the golden age of radio. “It has more of a throw-up than a throwback Michael Feldman quality,” he demurred, then he got semi-serious. “It probably is regressive, but in a good way. I don’t have axes to grind.

“From the beginning, I didn’t want to do talk radio,” he said. “It’s gotten worse, but it always was people loudly showing how little they know. I like to mumble ignorant things rather than shout about them.”

A Wisconsin native, Feldman, 60, got his start in radio in 1977, when he sought distraction from an “annual Christmas depression” to volunteer as an odd-jobber at WORT in Madison.

Soon Feldman, a high school teacher, was filling in on a Friday night call-in on WORT, “Thanks for Calling.” “Who’s home on Friday nights? The bedridden, the geriatric, the undatable,” Feldman said. “I was sympathetic to their various plights, but I had nothing to say, so I just said, ‘Thanks for calling.’ It didn’t last long.”

But “The Breakfast Special,” broadcast live on WORT from Dolly’s Fine Foods in Madison, showcased Feldman’s talent for bantering with everyday folk face to face, needling and charming them by turns. “That was my big break,” Feldman said. “I need people around me. I can’t really do a studio show.”

Two years later, Feldman quit the show and became a cab driver. He makes the job sound like a radio show with a meter. “The guys I worked with were down to earth, interesting and funny and intellectual,” he said. “Cab drivers are always refugees from some academic or cultural pursuit.”

Soon he was back on radio with a series of live shows, but was fired after an unsuccessful drive-time show on WGN in Chicago in 1984.

Feldman’s fortunes changed for good when Jack Mitchell, his old boss from Wisconsin Public Radio, called from Madison. Feldman wanted to stay in Chicago, but he agreed to meet Mitchell at the Time Museum in Rockford, an odd collection of clocks and timepieces halfway between the two cities.

Feldman gave a pitch he was sure Mitchell would reject: a live, national callin from Madison, with a live band and a live audience — “about nothing, even before it was fashionable to do something about nothing.”

To Feldman’s surprise, Mitchell agreed to everything. Feldman’s stubbornly low-key and low-noise formula clicked. His first idea was to simply walk into the studio with a newspaper and comment on the contents. “Somebody suggested I write it down, and that’s where the monologue came in,” Feldman said.

Feldman hosts high-profile guests, but he specializes in finding offbeat local personalities. His guests Saturday will include Pamela Rasmussen, an MSU Museum curator and expert on Asian birds; musical guest Flatfoot; and Joe Bristol from Joe’s Gizzard City in Potterville.

Political jibes are common on the show, usually at the expense of Republicans, but there is one thing he’s uncomfortable with: “actual sex topics.” “Everything is so overt now that I think we should go back to innuendo,” he said.

Petty NPR warfare, however, is fair game. Feldman was happy to fan the embers of his ongoing feud with Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” another quirky NPR quiz show with punctuation in its name. Their latest skirmish began when Feldman called the show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Wake Me.”

Feldman said he got hold of a memo Sagal “ripped” to his staff. “It was quite vicious. There I was, in the sunset of my career, flailing about, looking for targets, maligning this great American institution of his.”

He found Sagal’s towering pique amusing. “I guess we’re competitors,” he said. “Gee whiz. Golly.”

The Feldman-Sagal feud, too, harks back to the 1940s, when radio giants Jack Benny and Fred Allen sniped at each other weekly. “Yeah, but they were kidding,” Feldman said. “They were friends.”

Michael Feldman’s “Whad’ Ya Know?”

Live national broadcast 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 31 MSU Auditorium $20-$45 1 (800) WHARTON