Just hours before Live Wire's October 19 show at the Alberta Rose Theatre, Courtenay Hameister, the show's head writer, hunkers down in the green room with staff writer Jason Rouse. The pair gleefully—if frantically—write the final version of a quiz segment for the weekly variety show.
The concept: a trivia quiz that will pit prominent comic book artist Brian Michael Bendis against a self-proclaimed “superfan.” The twist: unbeknownst to Bendis, his wife leaked Hameister personal information to weave into the questions.
Live Wire's 10th Anniversary Show
with Fred Armisen, Sherman Alexie, Sallie Ford and her new band, and more
Mar 15“We start with basic stuff,” Hameister tells Rouse. Both writers wear chunky black cardigans, suggesting the married couple they often act like, but aren’t. “Then we can start asking the creepy stuff: he has all his T-shirts organized in labeled cubbies—name two of the six labels. Is that creepy?”
“It would be creepy,” Rouse answers, “if we say Bendis has six drawers in his bedroom, and the superfan says, ‘They’re not drawers, they’re cubbies.’”
It’s the kind of twist—destined to catapult a simple interview into an unpredictable, real-time moment—that propelled Live Wire from a low-budget Portland culture mash-up into something bold, new, and increasingly national. Branding itself as a bright problem child of the public-radio world, with taglines like “Live Wire: radio variety for the ADD generation,” the show packs the Alberta Rose twice a month and now airs on 40 stations around the country (and in England).
“We want to give more than just an hour of entertainment,” says executive director Robyn Tenenbaum. “It’s about crafting a journey with something to chew on, something to laugh at, something to pause at. We want guests who cause us to think differently.”
Live Wire’s climb from DIY obscurity comes at an auspicious moment, as the public-
radio world nervously anticipates a once-in-a-generation vacancy. In 2011, Garrison Keillor, the gravelly voiced radio demigod whose A Prairie Home Companion has dominated the public airwaves since 1974, announced that he would retire in 2013. While the 71-year-old later recanted the threat to raze Lake Wobegon, his flirtation with abdication put stations on alert. Live Wire is heard by about 80,000 people each week. Keillor’s show draws four million weekly listeners across 600 stations, forming a holy trinity with Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me and Car Talk as public radio’s biggest entertainment draws—and, consequently, biggest pledge-drive fundraisers.
The race is on to find the next big thing (tempered with the proper NPR earnestness, of course). Live Wire is among a handful of upstart shows jockeying for Keillor’s variety kingdom. The station that Keillor built, Minnesota Public Radio, touts Wits, a comedy- and music-focused jaunt. National Public Radio itself backs Ask Me Another, a Brooklyn-based variety quiz show. South Dakota’s Rock Garden attempts an unlikely combination of music and, yes, gardening.
“As much as I don’t believe we are like A Prairie Home Companion, we are the replacement,” says Hameister. To her, that means a show that’s younger, hipper, and more modern—basically, a Portland-infused generational successor to PHC’s boomer-beloved folksiness.
As showtime nears on the night of the 19th, that approach feels like a torrid romance between calculation and chaos. Hameister is handing out the new quiz. The first guest band waltzes in minutes before the show is supposed to start. And Luke Burbank, the show’s new host (and a regular on Wait Wait and CBS Sunday Morning), has just flown in from Los Angeles with some not-so-good news: somebody stole his laptop at the airport—while, he bemoans, he was buying an $11 packet of beef jerky.
“It had all my notes for the show on it,” he tells anyone who will listen. “At least I got a monologue out of it.”
As Burbank retreats to the tiny storage closet that doubles as his preshow office to salvage his thoughts, two solid weeks of methodical preparation somehow comes down to a scramble. Burbank’s boyish, gap-toothed grin almost convinces that the mayhem is completely worth it. And maybe it is. As a look back on the making of this evening’s Live Wire production reveals, great radio is anything but an exact science.
Tuesday, October 8: The Pitch
A weekly radio program is an insatiable beast. Every two weeks, Live Wire mounts a Saturday-night performance at the Alberta Rose, complete with multiple guest interviews and readings, two musical acts, sketches, and various trademark jetsam like “Dear Live Wire,” a segment in which actors and guests make up answers to absurd audience questions. The recording then gets edited into two hour-long radio episodes that broadcast from Portland to Pittsburgh.
The Tuesday after an October 5 taping, Hameister, Rouse, and three others filter into the cramped writers’ room in their N Mississippi Avenue office to begin anew. Each of the show’s writers must present 10 concepts for sketches. Outlandish ideas and playful interjections soon build like improv riffs in a veteran jazz ensemble.
“A guy’s going through a Breaking Bad withdrawal,” suggests show veteran Sean McGrath. “I don’t know if he’s just depressed, or if it’s like a heroin withdrawal.”
“What would be the methadone for Breaking Bad?” asks Hameister.
“Sons of Anarchy,” Rouse shouts. “It’s gritty.” And thus pop culture–infused radio comedy is born. Over four meetings in the next 11 days, writers turn the best pitches into full sketches. (By the time the Breaking Bad skit hits the stage, it features an interventionist prescribing lost episodes of Doctor Who recently discovered at a Kenyan radio station.)
This process has acquired considerable polish since Tenenbaum and Kate Sokoloff started Live Wirein 2003, with Hameister as head writer and Jim Brunberg as Technical Producer. (Sokoloff left in 2011.) They produced their first monthly show for OPB in March 2004. Everything was ad hoc, including when Hameister took over as host after just four shows, with no experience. But audiences packed the house and local celebrities, like director Todd Haynes, joined as guests from early on. Within a year, the local press declared Live Wire on the verge of countrywide distribution, already describing it as A Prairie Home Companion for a younger generation.
“We were optimistic,” admits Tenenbaum, a wiry woman who crackles with energy, about the founding ensemble’s belief that the show could attract a national following in just a year or two. “But we did know we couldn’t go national without a weekly show.”
As the production evolved into a small company—with an annual budget of $350,000, Live Wire now employs five mostly full-timers and a half-dozen contractors—they finally nailed the formula in 2010: two live shows per month equals four broadcast episodes. Soon after, Live Wire began airing in regional markets like West Marin, California, and significant cities such as Austin and Indianapolis, with public-radio affiliate stations paying the production company for episodes. As the show’s reputation rose, so did the prestige of its guests, often national writers, bands, or film directors passing through Portland.
“They’ve really tightened up the show, and have a better understanding of what a nationally distributed show should sound like,” says Todd Bachmann, a radio veteran of This American Life and Sound Opinions who advised Live Wire on its national push.
Or as a sign in the writers’ room declares: “Get in. Be funny. And get the hell out.”
See videos of Courtenay Hameister's favorite sketches, interviews, and extras, and check out a behind-the-scenes slide show from a recent Live Wire episode.