The Live Audience Experience

Peter Sagal of Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!
I’m in Chicago this week attending the International Association of Venue Managers conference. After years of working with venues as a resident company or a producer, it has been interesting to take part in this conference and hear about the issues facing venue managers.


The keynote was delivered by one of my favorite personalities, the host of NPR’s radio show, Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, Peter Sagal. Besides quite a bit of humor about the goings on in the world, Peter had a very interesting perspective to share about live audiences. He used his show as his example.

I didn’t realize that the original concept for the show was a pure studio format. There was no live audience. Peter Sagal sat in one studio. Halfway across the country, Karl Cassell sat in another studio, and the special guests, Paula Poundstone and others were in another studio. Rick Berman, the benevolent overlord that is the show’s producer, felt that by doing the show in a studio the overhand cost could be kept low and each episode edited for content to keep it tight. It was a formula that Berman had used very successfully for Car Talk. As Peter said you really had no idea if you were all that funny. The only indicator was how many NPR stations across the country picked up the show. Originally, it was sold to something like 9 stations.

It was by accident that they ended up doing their first live performance. The communication happening between the audience and stage was interesting Peter noted, because we were all just standing there doing a taped radio show. No scenery, no costumes. More shows followed and eventually it was decided that the show would be taped weekly before a live studio audience. There was only one problem, they needed to find a theater that would commit to letting them have it every Thursday. Enter the Chase Bank Auditorium.


The Chase Bank Auditorium

The Chase Bank Auditorium started out as a rather dank corporate auditorium used for Chase related events. The show moved into the auditorium and Peter said that the vibe changed immediately. Originally 400 now less after the renovation, the Chase Bank is the show’s home when they aren’t taking the act on the road.

Peter made a comment about radio versus the live audience that I found particularly insightful. Film and television are based upon a one to many relationship, where the audience is looking in on the actors, but not relating to them. Live theater is a communicative art form where the artists and the audience feed off of each other. In radio, even though the broadcast may be to millions of people, the relationship is one-to-one. By introducing a live audience into the mix that relationship changes. There is both the radio listener at home and the live audience in the theater.

People crave engagement if only to get them to look up from their smartphones for a few minutes. It is the live experience that drives people to the theater. Peter said that he felt at one time that theater would die out as people became more isolated by technology. Pointing to shows like Hamilton and many others he now feels that theater fills a vital need in our society.

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