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Live Wire! Radio: behind the dial

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LiveWire Radio is a locally produced and nationally broadcast radio variety show that is taped live in front of a studio audience at the Alberta Rose Theatre. It’s smart, funny, irrerevent, and an absolute blast to see live. We are sponsors of the show and they invited us in for a peek behind the dial during soundcheck and rehearsal before a recent taping with the incredible Reggie Watts and Michael Kiwanuka–it was a kickoff to our partnership and they offered up bottles of Cold Brew to the enrapt crowd. Since this taping, the inimitable Courtenay Hameister has gracefully stepped down as host after nine years (listen to her goodbye speech here) but she remains on the show as the Head Writer and Co-Producer. The new host is the ever-talented Luke Burbank.

We sat down with the show’s Executive Producer and Co-Creator Robyn Tenenbaum for some insight about how the show started, where’s it’s gone and where it’s headed.

You are the executive producer and co-creator of the show. How did it all come together?

Kate Sokoloff (a branding consultant in town) and I began working on the show in February 2003. She approached me with an idea to produce a show for Portland, like what West Coast Live was for San Francisco, a live radio show that featured the best talent of what Oregon – and the rest of the country – had to offer in terms of people who did fascinating things, great musicians and the occasional oddball, who no one knew about but everyone should. Kate had been a caller on Car Talk once and that was the extent of her radio experience, but she had the vision of what she wanted to achieve. Her experience was steeped in live theater and she had a lot of great connections around town who helped in the early phases.  I had produced West Coast Live for 4 years so I had a working knowledge of the elements needed to get a show on the air.

Courtenay Hameister was working for an advertising firm at that time as a copywriter and helped write and design many of our materials with Bob Thompson at Dangerr Creative.  We came up with great materials to take to OPB and other potential supporters and the materials were innovative and so pretty it was hard to throw them away.

Jim Brunberg, our Technical Producer was a musician I had known from San Francisco. He was opening up Mississippi Studios at the time and had the expertise to record a live show and impeccably edit it for the radio. Ralph Huntley was with his band Klezmocracy, who was the original house band for Live Wire.  And Carolyn Lindberg had radio and radio marketing experience. So, it was a strange and wonderful convergence of people all at the same time.  I don’t use the word ‘synchronicity’ often but this truly was pure synchronicity.

Early on, we were able to get the attention of the right people at OPB to convince them that we had a great idea and the expertise to execute it, and OPB agreed to air us if we handled the budget and the production of the show,  essentially if we stayed independent. Many of the radio shows we hear are started and/or backed by a station, so Live Wire is unique in that we are a completely independent production that airs on OPB.

Who are the show’s writers and what is the writing process like?

Courtenay Hameister is our Head Writer and has been since our inception. Currently she works with our other show writers, Sean McGrath and Jason Rouse, as well as with one guest writer from the community each show. In the past 2 years, they have also had the good fortune to work with Bill Oakley (of Simpsons and Portlandia fame).  Bill helps them hone their craft of writing as well as the process of how to achieve one’s best work.

They meet once a week. The first meeting, they throw out 15 ideas for sketches then discuss and determine which ideas have legs and which to toss. They all write on their own for a week before reconvening and giving feedback to the writer of each sketch. Another draft is hatched before the performers meet.  Early in the week of show week, the performers gather for a table read.

What is the booking process like? 

The booking process is collaborative to some extent. I handle most of the bookings and Courtenay handles some as well.  We all keep an eye and ear out for what’s happening around us in books, films, pop culture, music, and performance and try to be in touch with anyone and everyone who we find to be fascinating.

Now that we’ve been around for almost 10 years, we’ve established a name among publicists, as being a good promotional opportunity and a fun show to be on. Our past guests are great word of mouth for us and sometimes suggest others to be on the show.

What’s the best thing about working on Live Wire and what are some of the most challenging elements?

The best thing about working on Live Wire is that it’s our show to shape and mold and make into anything we want to do. And that if I or anyone has an idea worth pursuing, it can just happen. The other best thing is the multitude of talent I get exposed to on a regular basis. I not only work with crazily talented people but I also get a front row seat to some of the best music, performance, interviews and inspiring people.

The most challenging thing is that it’s our show to shape and mold into anything we want to do. We are independent and while that a great thing, it brings great challenges to keep things operating on a daily and yearly basis. I am very proud that we have never been in debt and that we’ve grown at a rate of 15% since we started the show, but it’s still a challenge to want to do what we want to do on a shoestring budget.

Any favorite moments you can recount during a taping?

My most recent favorite moment was bittersweet. Our host of 9 years, Courtenay Hameister, decided to step down as host and continue as Head Writer and Producer of the show.  She read a beautiful essay to the live audience on April 20 explaining her reasons why she needed to do so. As with all of her essays, this one was touching, funny and poignant, not just for Courtenay, but for anyone listening who ever had to make a difficult decision, or anyone who contemplates the role that stress plays in their lives.  As she concluded her essay, she was met with the most touching standing ovation I’ve ever witnessed. It went on for many minutes.  Truly touching and a clear picture of how beloved Courtenay is.

I am moved by something at every show. Recently this season, we were lucky to have booked Alfredo Rodriguez, a 27-year-old Cuban pianist who was discovered by Quincy Jones and with good reason. His hands just blurred as he played. When I asked him if he was going to play songs from his new recording, he explained to me that he just improvs when he plays live shows. So I told him he had four minutes, he put his Iphone timer on the piano, and at exactly the four minute mark, he played his last note. It was astonishing.

One of our favorite guests who will hopefully be our recurring favorite guest (he’s been on twice) is Daniel Handler aka Lemony Snicket. Daniel plays the accordion and the first time he was on he played Prince’s “When Doves Cry” with a latin twist, with our house band, but my favorite part of his segment was something that I wasn’t told about and I loved the unexpectedness of it.

After his interview and before he played, he announced he needed to take off his jacket and needed someone to hold it for him. So from the wings, I said, “Oh I can hold it,” to which he replied, ‘No, not you… How about… Colin Meloy from the Decemberists. Colin comes up, takes Daniel’s coat and just stands stoned face during his song. After the song, Daniel saunters over to Colin, takes his coat, whips him a buck and they walk off the stage.

It was just hilarious. Pure theater.  Colin didn’t crack a smile.

Amazing. Speaking of unexpected elements, what else do you think taping in front of a live audience brings to the show?

There’s really nothing better than having that energy of a live crowd watching and absorbing what’s on stage.  The audience plays such a big role in the making of our show as the energy on stage and that energy in the crowd is a continuous loop. They both feed on each other.

Radio is such a great medium but nothing beats a live experience. And we get the best of both worlds. And if we do it just right, you can feel that energy in the room when you are listening to Live Wire on the radio.

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