Wednesday, October 9: Passing the Mic

Live Wire host Luke Burbank and head writer Courtenay Hameister
Live Wire host Luke Burbank and head writer Courtenay Hameister

The day after the pitch meeting, Hameister and Tenenbaum talk to Burbank via Skype. The 37-year-old host, who lives in Seattle, has a much higher profile in public-radio circles than the rest of Live Wire’s staff—and a spiky reputation, in that well-behaved world, as an iconoclast. 

Starting as a show booker at the Seattle public radio station KUOW in 2001, Burbank worked his way up to reporting for NPR, then to hosting programs. First, he filled in for Peter Sagal on Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me (and continues to appear regularly). He cohosted a short-lived, New York–based NPR news show, The Bryant Park Project, devised to appeal to younger audiences. Just a month after the program debuted, Burbank quit, saying he wanted to be closer to his daughter in Seattle. (He later acknowledged clashes with NPR executives.) The abrupt departure made him persona non grata at NPR for a time, though he gradually won his way back into the operation’s good graces. Meanwhile, he embarked on commercial radio stints in Seattle and his own podcast, Too Beautiful to Live, which clocks two million downloads a month. Through it all, Burbank developed a reputation for out-of-the-box hosting strategies, such as challenging Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee to Ping-Pong.

“He’s funny, he’s fast, he’s interesting, and he’s fearless about putting himself out there,” Sagal told the Seattle Times in a profile of Burbank. “He’s also one of those people, I think, who is able to be genuine in a very artificial environment.”

Burbank’s role at Live Wire evolved rather quickly. Tenenbaum and Hameister had booked him for last year’s March 16 show, in part to feel him out as a potential backup host. Then at 9:30 p.m. on March 15, Hameister left Tenenbaum the message every producer dreads: she could not go on. The pressure of working as both head writer and host had sparked a full-scale panic attack. (She would eventually have gall bladder surgery for a stress–related condition.) Hameister’s solution: ask Burbank to host the show. 

After a night of drinking with friends, Burbank awoke to a hangover and multiple calls from Tenenbaum. Though he was slated to be a guest, he’d never actually heard a Live Wire episode—but he didn’t hesitate. “That show was a complete blur,” he recalls. “I was trying to act like I was not nervous because I could tell everyone else was freaked out. It was a complete act.”

Act or not, it worked. Hameister permanently relinquished her role to Burbank, and he quit his commercial show. “Everything I didn’t love about my day job, I loved about Live Wire: the crowd, the things they talked about, the staff,” he says. “It did mean taking a vow of poverty, but I think that Live Wire has the potential to be one of the significant shows on public radio that everybody listens to.”

Over Skype, Tenenbaum and Hameister suggest that Burbank—who recently grilled Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a pot-legalization advocate, on exactly which marijuana expenses should be tax deductible—quiz Bendis, the comic book creator, on superheroes. Burbank offers a different idea: the quiz competition between Bendis and a fan. “And we should sandbag him,” Burbank adds with a devilish grin. “It’ll be funnier if he loses.” 

Saturday, October 19: The Show

While Hameister was a writer-host, more comfortable reading crafted essays than performing off the cuff, Burbank is a showman. He bounds on stage in a gray suit and slicked-back hair, takes the mic, and leans on the stand with the sly confidence of a Rat Pack icon. With only an outline in mind, he launches into the story of losing his laptop and how it also meant losing irreplaceable photos of his daughter. 

His hosting style is unabashedly confessional—equal parts self-indulgence and self-deprecation—and his quick humor threatens to steal conversations from any less-than-nimble guest. Burbank is a public-radio deviant, as interested in pop culture, sports, gambling, and drinking (during one brunch interview, he makes it through two Jamesons and a Ketel and soda) as foreign affairs or health policy.

After an excerpt from an Elliott Smith song, Burbank conducts an interview with William Todd Schultz, the author of Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith. “I want to ask you a question, and in the green room you said you didn’t want me to ask this question,” Burbank says. “I remember hearing that there were questions about how he died.”

“There’s a small, monomaniacal set of fans who are convinced that Elliott Smith was murdered,” answers Schultz. “Those people are now essentially attacking me.”

“Your next book is about Tupac, right?” pokes Burbank, as the audience erupts in laughter.

“You’re good,” Schultz replies. “You’re very good.”

Then Burbank, a die-hard Smith fan, pivots to a respectfully somber tone, and the segment ends with a heart-wrenching live performance of Smith’s “Between the Bars” by Suzanne Tufan.

“The part of Burbank’s brain that handles radio interviewing and hosting is like Adonis’s washboard stomach,” says Bachmann. “He commands the stage, and he’s really funny.”

All agree that Burbank has shaken up Live Wire’s creative strategies. He helped introduce live phone interviews to the show, recently dialing a taxidermist in Alabama to discuss whether kittens could have wings. He’s also mixing postproduction content into the broadcast episodes. After the karaoke staple “Baby Got Back” came up in a live interview, for instance, he called Sir Mix-A-Lot to tape an interview, which was edited into the program before it aired.

“It was already a good show, but it’s going to the next level with Luke, and I think there’s even a next level,” says Jeff Hansen, the program director of Seattle’s KUOW, which is negotiating with Live Wire to expand to represent the entire Pacific Northwest, including occasional recording sessions in Seattle. That sense of place, Hansen argues, could echo Keillor’s intense identification with the Upper Midwest. 

Bendis is the final guest of the night. He floats through his interview like one of his superheroes. But then comes Burbank’s coup de grace: the quiz. The superfan beats Bendis on a number of comic factoids, to Bendis’s chagrin. But he looks truly shocked as the questions move into material only a spouse or stalker would know. The audience squirms with laughter.

The moment crystallizes Live Wire’s arc. What started out as an entertainment show 10 years ago has become an audio adventure that travels from hilarious absurdity to intense emotion and back in the course of an hour. Other public-radio shows might interview Bendis. They probably wouldn’t challenge him to a quiz, then cheat. 

“Instead of being the next Prairie Home Companion, I want to be something that never existed before,” Burbank says. “I want the show to have more warts—sometimes it’s awkward; sometimes we mess up. I want to create something that’s much more of a journey for people: they don’t know where it’s going to go.” 

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.