Michael Feldman was told by Wisconsin Public Radio executives Thursday that the decision to cancel his “Whad’Ya Know?” live comedy show that aired every Saturday for 31 years was based on economics, but he still took it personally.
“It’s too closely identified with my life,” said Feldman, 66, who helped make the show one of the most successful and popular in WPR’s history.
“It’s hard to separate the show with my life, especially when you’re told you’re not needed anymore,” he said. “I put my one egg in one basket. But it was a good basket and a good egg.”
“Whad’Ya Know?”, which will air its last show on June 25, was canceled because it had become an economic liability, according to WPR director Mike Crane.
Just 100 stations across the country pay WPR a fee to air the two-hour show that is among WPR’s most expensive to produce, Crane said.
At the show’s peak about 15 years ago, 330 stations were paying WPR to air the show that was heard by 1.5 million listeners.
“The competition is very different than it once was,” Crane said. “Stations have different choices. So over that time there has been a significant change” in how many stations carry the show.
Feldman was aware of the declining numbers. “It has been a little dicey the past few years. So it wasn’t out of the blue, yet it was,” he said.
Since the show remains popular with Wisconsin viewers, Feldman offered Thursday to downsize the show so state stations could still air it. He said he was surprised when the offer was immediately turned down.“I tried to give it a shot to keep it going at some level. But they were pretty much of the opinion that it is over, so I accepted that and said, ‘OK,’” Feldman said.
He said WPR told him that he’s welcome to return “if I come up with an idea that makes sense to them. ... I’m not opposed to thinking about it.”
He shuddered at the thought of no longer having the chance to regularly connect with his loyal audiences — those present in the studio and those who call in to the show by phone — that reveled in Feldman’s comedy routines and loved taking part in the quiz show.
“The show is called Michael Feldman’s ‘Whad’Ya Know?’ but it’s really the audience’s show,” Feldman said. “They are 90 percent of the show.”
“Beyond that, getting to meet all those people and interacting with them has been so gratifying. It was an amazing experience on a human emotional level. And I’m not usually an emotional human. I will definitely miss all of that.”
Crane said WPR plans to celebrate the show’s incredible run during its remaining broadcasts, which include tours to Cleveland on April 23 and Eau Claire on May 21. The final broadcast will take place at the Monona Terrace.
“They truly are a family. You feel that when you hang out with them,” Crane said. “When you go on one of the road shows, it’s like a family reunion for them because they have more time together.”
“Whad’Ya Know?” was created in 1985 after then-WHA station manager Jack Mitchell called Feldman and asked him to do a show for the station. Feldman, who grew up in Milwaukee and had done shows for WORT and WHA, was unemployed and living in Chicago at the time. He agreed to a meeting with Mitchell in Rockford, Illinois.
“I didn’t want to do it because I wanted to prove myself in Chicago,” said Feldman. “I was up all night worrying about it. I came up with this proposal and I thought he’d reject it out of hand. But he said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”
Now, Feldman can barely remember his life when he wasn’t doing the show. “It’s been practically synonymous with my life,” he said. “My kids grew up to it. It became generational with the audience. Kids were dragged to soccer listening to my show. Some of their own kids now are listening to it. So it was generational and metaphorical.”
Retirement is not in Feldman’s plans. “I do have a lifetime taxicab license that I don’t think I’ll use. I also have a teaching certificate that I think also is for a lifetime but I don’t think I’ll use that either,” he said.
“I have no retirement skills. That seriously is a problem. My wife and I cannot travel together. We only know how to take the show on the road.”