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Many longtime Madison residents will remember the first time they heard the name Michael Feldman.
They were tuned in to WORT-FM, circa 1980, first thing in the morning, and a guy with nothing more than a microphone and a telephone was putting on a show live from a dump of a diner on Willy Street called Dolly’s.
He took calls, made a few of his own, and had fun with the odd souls who frequented Dolly’s before the bars opened.
“You’re really screwed up,” one caller told the host. “But I hope you never change, because it’s very entertaining.”
The show was “The Breakfast Special.” Five years later, Feldman would launch “Whad’ya Know,” the public radio show that made him famous. It lasted three decades and at its peak had more than 1.5 million listeners on 330 stations.
Wisconsin Public Radio ceased production of “Whad’ya Know” in 2016, over the host’s objections. Feldman did not want it to end, and many listeners felt the same.
“When push came to shove and the show was ending, people said, ‘Michael, do a podcast,’” Feldman says.
The host, like many an old school radio hands, was skeptical. When he was still on the air, Feldman had fooled around at home with a podcast. The results were not memorable.
“I didn’t really have anything to say,” he recalls. “The first one was about 30 seconds [before] the neighbor started up his lawnmower.”
But with the radio show off the air and his fans urging him on, Feldman began a Kickstarter campaign for a podcast and quickly raised $20,000.
“My back was against the wall,” he says. “I had to do something or give the money back.”
Feldman launched, in September 2016, an ambitious live “Whad’ya Know” podcast from the High Noon Saloon that essentially recreated the radio show, with its music, live audience and quiz.
It proved too big a production for a podcast to sustain.
Now, however, Feldman is back, with “Whad’ya Know ’18," a podcast that in some ways mirrors what he did in the old days at Dolly’s, only from his home rather than a diner. He’s assisted by Lyle Anderson, his longtime friend and co-conspirator.
“I’m really enjoying it,” Feldman says. “It’s very much like I did with WORT at the beginning. I’d sit there with a telephone and people would call in. I might make a call out to somebody. That was as collaborative as it got. This is sort of like that, and it’s fun.”
The show is live most Saturdays at 10 a.m., his old slot, and available on the “Whad’ya Know” podcast Facebook page. Feldman then edits it and has an audio version up on iTunes later that day.
On a recent Saturday Feldman sparred with Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips—“Not the swimmer,” he kept insisting to Anderson—and Feb. 18 he’ll chat with consumer automotive guru Tom Appel.
A highlight of the recent shows has been a caller, Lance Kirk, who phones in from Paddy’s Pub in Songtang, South Korea, outside Seoul.
“He’s a contractor working for the Air Force,” Feldman says. “They keep the bar open for him so he can call. He nails the quiz.”
What most people won’t realize is that “The Breakfast Special” was not Feldman’s first call-in show for WORT. He arrived in Madison in 1978 after teaching high school English in Kenosha. WORT put him on Friday nights with a show titled “Thanks for Calling.”
No matter what a caller would say—and they said some inane and outrageous things—Feldman would respond, “Thanks for calling.” His mother was an occasional guest and no matter the subject, she offered callers the same advice: “Be sure to dress warm.”
After all these years he still likes the spontaneity of incoming calls.
“A call-in show is what radio should be,” Feldman says, and he doesn’t mean traditional talk radio or about so-called “big” issues.
“Small talk radio,” he says. “You get to jaw with people.” It’s worked for Michael Feldman for going on 40 years now.
“It wasn’t about the quiz,” he says. “It was about the people calling in.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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