Pictured: Ophira Eisenberg/Photo: Andrew Boyle Photography
Pictured: Ophira Eisenberg/Photo: Andrew Boyle Photography

Radio Game Shows Offer Escape from Reality, the Nerdy (Read: DC) Way

Information overload. Saturated media market. Stimulus fatigue. Call it what you will, but especially over the past year, many readers and media consumers have felt varying degrees of stress associated with choosing where, when and how often to engage with news and information sources, including which outlets they “trust,” which they prefer and which they feel comfortable supporting.

To stay sane, I personally choose to limit the time I spend diving down the rabbit hole of Internet media, and instead focus on an hour or so of public media radio and podcast programming each day. In this way, I feel like I am exposed to a mix of critical news pieces, diverse voices and entertainment.

Through some very informational research – a.k.a. individual conversations and a Facebook poll – I asked people in my network what kind of public media programs, specifically those offered on NPR, they are drawn to. It wasn’t surprising to me to see many favorite programs and hosts were the ones presented on geographically local affiliate stations – for example, here in DC, The Kojo Nnamdi Show, The Diane Rehm Show and 1A topped people’s lists, while in the Philly area, Fresh Air was overwhelmingly popular. The revelation makes sense: we are interested in and connect more easily to what is happening in our immediate communities.

But many also mentioned variety and game show-type programs, like Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, as second favorites. These fall under what appears to be an increasingly popular category of programming that satisfies both the information-seeking and playful parts of our brain. In other words, if we can skip the “fake news” debate and instead laugh along as a contestant tries to “name that tune” about say, megalomaniacal dictators, we are less prone to feeling overwhelmed by news and more apt to engage. Comedy is a great equalizer. Ophira Eisenberg, a comedian, storyteller and host of NPR’s Ask Me Another, understands this well.

“We’re a light show,” she says. “We’re truly escapist.”

Eisenberg has been the host for the program, accompanied by musician Jonathan Coulton, since it began five years ago. Then program director Eric Newsome and the game writers “were hellbent on finding a female trivia host – which, what a great initiative that was,” Eisenberg says.

Ask Me Another is like bar trivia meets Nerd Nite, and part of its success is in the element of surprise. While contestants are pre-vetted, the show is recorded live, so neither the host nor the listeners know what to expect.

“What’s happening onstage, there is so much of what you hear that is spontaneous,” Eisenberg says. “It is not written. So that’s [what is appealing] to me: the excitement that we get to capture that. We get these contestants onstage that I’ve never met, they’ve never met me and we are in this very odd and sort of accelerated reality because we’re playing a game show. So we’re in this altered reality where we chat and hang out onstage, and I really think it brings out the coolest aspects of people.”

In addition to suspending reality for a moment, another major appeal to listeners is the chance to hear notable guests – each show also features a VIP contestant, a writer, artist, musician, scientist, politician or other public figure – be interviewed in a way that humanizes them, aka they play the games along with the host and audience.

During roadshows, the production team tries to tie the VIP guest thematically to the city where they’ll be taping. Ask Me Another is on the road in DC this week live at the Warner Theatre, featuring astronaut Chris Hatfield as the special guest.

“There was some talk about getting someone who works in politics,” Eisenberg says. “But then we thought, can we do something that’s just a little bit of a left turn because maybe people want a break from that?”

We in the DMV could definitely use a break from political themes and, it seems, that’s exactly why we tune in. After all, we’re dying to know: when you cry in space, the tears stick to your face, but what if you sob? Is every cry in space an ugly cry?

NPR’s Ask Me Another with special guest Chris Hatfield will be played live at Warner Theatre on Thursday, February 1. Click here for tickets and more information.

Warner Theatre: 513 13th St. NW, DC; 202-783-4000; www.warnertheatredc.com

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Courtney Sexton

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She has called D.C. home for long enough to now be considered a “local”. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is the co-founder of D.C. literary reading series and writing community, The Inner Loop. She listens to a lot of music and sometimes even tries to make it. She writes a good deal about places and human relationships to them, constantly exploring the intersections of nature and culture. Her dog, Rembrandt, features prominently in her life and work.