(Tribune photo by Alex Garcia / July 9, 2009)
Chicago Public Radio's weekly quiz game Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!
combines the famously calming voices of NPR with short answer news trivia. The result is an entertaining way for listeners to keep up with current events. What effects do the show's qualities as a game have on its delivery of news content?
The Wikipedia entry for Wait Wait
contains an exhaustive list of the game types used on the show, however all of the games playable by callers follow the same format and function.
In almost all game types, the caller guesses which person or event in the recent news the show's announcer (Carl Kasell) is referring to. Depending on the game type, Carl presents the reference in the form of an inbox message (Ask Carl), Facebook status updates (Carlbook), a Craigslist posting (An Internet Destination Called Carlslist), commercials for fictional television shows (Wait Wait... Telelvision), a short poem (Listener Limerick Challenge), or actual quotes (Who's Carl This Time?).
The one other game played by callers, Bluff the Listener, presents 3 news blurbs, only one of which is real, and it is up to the caller to guess which of those current event stories is the real one.
There are two slightly more intense games - Not My Job (three question quiz having nothing to do with someone's area of expertise), and The News: Lightning Fill-In-The-Blank (rapid fire short answer questions about minor news stories) - although those are unavailable to callers, included for special guests and comic panelists only.
Callers answering enough questions win a non-monetary prize: a voicemail message by the show's announcer (Kasell). Listeners are not privileged with answers before the caller's guess, giving everyone tuning in a chance to play along.
How Being a Game Helps
Even though the show's game features are its most obvious distinction, and the show is structured around the various game types played, the games provide context to the show's discussions, rather than the other way around. The various on-air game structures provide a pleasing mixture of routine and variety, much like the tackle box of game types in The Price is Right, but there's more to it.
Most answers are 1-2 words long, and all questions involve several sentences of set up, plus a few paragraphs of clarifying detail after the caller's guess. The average caller will spend more words introducing themselves than they will filling in the last word on news-related limericks, guessing which recent character from the news Carl is pretending to be, and identifying which of 3 described news events actually took place.
The show's interactivity is best understood by a thought experiment: what would the show be like were it not a quiz show? If the panel just met and told jokes between explaining current events, welcoming callers to interject (as most talk shows do), the caller would then be in a position to derail the dialog by making opinionated statements. That's precisely what happens on many talk shows, and that format risks being too unpredictable, argumentative, or uninformed for NPR's tradition of carrying a civil, mature, and knowledgable dialog. However, were callers not allowed to participate, the discussion could potentially feel walled off and disconnected from its listeners.
There lies the trick: although it's a game show, the game isn't really the point. Game structure lets listeners feel like active participants without having enough freedom to mess up the show for everyone else.
Many newsgames wind up feeling like a game dressed in a suit by being about news, but in this case it's the other way around: Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!
is a news show dressed in a t-shirt and sunglasses by being a game. By adopting games as their delivery mechanism, the show pulls in listener involvement, while the format limits the listener's role narrowly enough for the show's content to be carefully controlled.
Although the show is successful in its mission to make current events fun, that fun comes perhaps more from combining the impression of community participation alongside the closed conversations of professional comics than from the game(s) per se
. Listen to Episodes of Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! at npr.org