Thursday, 23 August 2012

Michael Feldman, Radio’s Madman

Well, whad’ya know? Two years ago I was so beguiled by the madness of Michael Feldman that I braved the February snows of Madison, Wisconsin, to see how he did his “Whad’ya Know?” radio series. The first thing I learned when I got back to Philly was the WHYY had blipped the series.

Good news, Mikemates. As part of the station’s rehabbing from classical music to news, Mike is returning, on Saturdays, 2 to 4 p.m., beginning November 3.

He’s a delectably nutty mélange of pseudo-quiz show, world-class live jazz, and the feistiest, freshest audience participation extant in American radio. Where does his chemistry come from? He’s a 41-year-old professional failure (English teaching, cab driving, commercial radio-izing). As he hops into the seventh-floor studios of the University of Wisconsin Communications Building, carrying a satchel sufficiently old and bedraggled to have been an M.D.’s carry-all from back when medicos still made house calls, you could mistake him for a custodian.

Thin-lipped, elfin-eared, bespecked, Feldman in the flesh (if I may use that misleading figure in one so bloodless-looking) resembles nothing other than the IRS auditor you have nightmares over—until he picks up a live mike and goes mad right there on the non-set.

Mic-less, Michael is the failure of his family—his elder Milwaukee siblings did what their accountant father wanted them all to do: become doctors (two) and lawyers (two minus Michael). In a great ritual burning, he torched his law school test results in a mixing bowl, burning those too-tight britches behind him.

He came out of the U. of W. in 1970 with an English / education major, then taught high school English in Kenosha and later in Madison, remembering with scarcely concealed disgust the illiteracies of themes “written in eyebrow pencil.”

He volunteered one depressing Christmas at a local public radio station. Voila. A window pane of opportunity.

Congenital schmoozer that he is, before you could say “Stan Freberg” sideways, he was disc jockeying, then hosting—so well that he Chicago boom-boom boom clear-channel WGN tempted him down to the Windy City to pair his motor mouth (“the fastest lip in the Midwest”) with that of a recently-promoted female traffic reporter.

Michael muses that he was acid and she was base—so they neutralized each other. Ha! Only an X-rated English teacher can fashion a cheap shot out of what he dimly remembers of high school chemistry.

By the 1985 he had abandoned hacking for the glamour and glory of WHA, the oldest radio station in America. A year later, he went National (as in Public Radio), and the rest is fast becoming hysteria.

It’s a rare joy to see him warm up his own audience, 15 minutes before air time. The ten-below February Saturday I dropped in, the 30 “foreigners” with their chairs reserved by name and place of origin—Milwaukee, Chicago, Brookfield, Port Edwards—were given Michael’s little set-piece about drifting off-set whenever Nature calls, because if everyone waited for the one-minute break between Hour One and Hour Two of the two-hour run, the peeing brigade would be stacked up in front of the toilets “like planes over O’Hare.”

He addresses the crowd ever so sweetly. He’s a kind of Don Rickels who has who has earned a Merit Badge in Good Manners. His listeners love to be mocked and milked for his unscripted needles. The only scripted parts of the show are his two two-minute monologues, the jazz pieces and sidekick announcer Jim Packard’s tasty jeux d’espritz researched sallies on the town of the week—chosen at the last minute of the show by a viewer who throws a dart at a jumbled map of the U.S.

Packard picks up neat trivia like the fact that an English teacher named Hoge coined a famous city name by connecting “Minne” (Indian for water) “ha” (a Norsky expletive) and “polis” (Greek for city). The “h” dropped out silently because Minnesotans are just as slurvish as the rest of the country when it comes to enunciation.

Michael is in his (final) element when he’s poking around in the town’s telephone directory for some unwitting local to expatiate authentically about his locale. The FCC hath just decreed that you can’t broadcast a caller until he specifically agrees, and this first day of the ukase didn’t twit Michael a bit. The first call got no answer, the second a curt non-compliance, and the third, a car customizer who didn’t know the local hangouts because he didn’t hang out—he just stayed in his garage with buddies beering it up while they upfiddled their cars.

The quiz is harder to describe. You have to volunteer from the studio audience. Today’s choices were a yuppie lawyer and a winsome 20ish woman with a beguiling giggle who did “brain research.” Then Michael picks a long-distance partner from a list of those who’ve written in.

There are six categories (people, places, science, current events, what you should have learned in school, and odds ‘n’ ends.) You have to win in three categories to get a mock prize—which run to things like pink lawn flamingos. The brainy lady was in a state of delectable (to Michael) panic, fearing she’d make a mess of everything but science.

She actually distinguished herself on a question about the adrenalin glands: “rena” means kidney; “ad,” on top of. The phone-in helper gave her a gold star, and everybody turned euphoric as jazz pianist John Thulin and augmented bassist Jeff Eckels swing into three minutes of Benny Golson’s evergreen “Stablemates.”

The second pairing was the amiable yuppie lawyer from Watertown who said he was in the Good Guys law firm of Ken, Fred, Ray and Bob—a bit of Midwest status deflating that all hands relished. His serendipitous Bell-mate was a sign painter from Cumberland, Kentucky, who was so outrageously idiosyncratic that Mike had a nanosecond when it looked like Bruce was running away with Mike’s wit.

In a 20-minute live interview with Feldman hero / mentor Stan Freberg, shamelessly flogging his memoirs, Michael offered to read the book’s bar code over the air. You almost had the feeling Stan was bestowing his mantle on the young freak.

Perhaps the richest four minutes of the two hours are Feldman’s two two-minute monologues that he sweats over all week long. His second take was a superb lark about George Bush’s clubs, the Bohemian (where they oil themselves and wrestle Greco-Roman—think of Caspar Weinberger “oiled”), the Alfalfa (which Feldman impishly twisted into an “Our Gang” tangent), and the Alibi (“which needs no explanation”).

The mad man returns to Philly’s air. It’s nice to be plugged in again, Saturday afternoons, to Madison, the madcap capital of the Midwest.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 31, 1990

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