The variety show isn't dead, it's just thriving in a similarly antiquated medium. Since leaving Seattle to host Portland's Live Wire Radio, Luke Burbank has turned the modern take on the variety show into the fastest-growing entertainment program on public radio. Recorded in front of a live audience, each themed episode of Live Wire features a lineup of diverse guests who come together for a mix of interviews, comedy, storytelling, and music.
The gig has been big step up for Burbank, who transitioned from Seattle radio producer to Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me! panelist and This American Life contributor to KIRO host (Too Beautiful to Live, The Luke Burbank Show) before landing with Live Wire. Because the show can travel easily, Burbank brings Live Wire home a few times each season for Seattle tapings. The latest edition goes down this Friday, December 9 at the Neptune Theatre, and features satirical Seattle novelist Maria Semple, Native activist and rapper Gyasi Ross, Supernatural’s Misha Collins, and music from Telekinesis.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Burbank about growing up on Seattle radio, the keys to having an engaging interview, and appearing on a Jeff Tweedy bootleg CD.
How do you feel like Live Wire has changed and adapted since you took over as the host?
I think that the show has always been a pretty amazing live event, but I think what I have been able to bring to it a little bit is a real ear towards it also being an exceptional radio event. Because my background is in radio and even when I was a little kid I used to listen to the AM radio in the middle of the night and feel really connected to Sally Jessy Raphael or Bruce Williams hosting Talknet or Larry King or Wayne Cody hosting Sportsline in Seattle. I was pretty obsessed with it.
Live Wire had been going for like nine years by the time I got there, and it was really growing as a radio show. But what I think we’ve really been able to do over the last three years is figure out the parts of what we were doing that was making it the best radio show it could be, and then we’ve really emphasized that stuff. We’ve streamlined it a little bit. We’ve dropped some of the things that weren’t helping us as a radio show; things that might’ve been fun for the live crowd, but may have been lost on someone who’s driving somewhere in Austin in their Subaru Outback.
I’m just really a fan of genuine conversations. We try to have multiple really genuine moments on any given show: whether that’s some kind of prewritten bit we came up with or a moment in the conversation. A week or two ago we had Earl Blumenauer on, who’s a Democratic congressman from Oregon. This was right in the wake of the presidential election. And I’m sitting on stage with him and he looks at me, and I swear I could see the beginnings of tears in his eyes and he basically said, “You know, I don’t know if I’m going to go to the presidential inauguration. Because I respect the office of the presidency, but I do not feel like I can endorse this president-elect.” And I could tell that he was being really real. Like at that moment, he genuinely had not made up his mind. And that kind of shocked me, because I feel like politicians are usually pretty careful about what they say. In fact, most people who are used to talking into microphones get pretty accomplished at only saying what they want to say and not going off script, because when you go off script, scary things might happen.
What I like about our show is I think we create a lot of moments of things going off script. Anytime that happens, I think that we’re doing a good job. I think the more of those we can get the better. And I think we’ve definitely been adding those moments in the last few years.
How do you settle on the theme for an episode of Live Wire?
We started having a theme a couple of years ago, and it actually really helps us. I feel like the theme is kind of like the piece of dirt at the middle of the snowball. Once we figure out what the theme is, somehow it seems everything starts to orient around that and everything starts to sort of make sense. It almost seems like there’s a certain amount of serendipity with it.
We usually have a couple of the guests booked, and then me and the producers will start kicking around ideas about what we think might be a theme that speaks to whatever the guests are doing. And sometimes that can be really loose and there’s a little bit of creative license there, not unlike the way that This American Life will figure out ways to tie stories into a specific theme.
We don’t typically pick a theme without any guests booked, because that would probably limit us. Once we have what we consider to be what we call our anchor guests and have our theme put together, that helps inform what other guest we go out and grab based on that theme. It’s a somewhat complicated process, but it seems to be working so far.
What do you see as the keys to being an entertaining and engaging host?
I really try to be as present as possible up there, which is actually harder than you might think because my job as a host also is to keep track of how much time we’ve been up there and if this segment is going longer than it’s supposed to. There’s a lot of sort of technical stuff that I’m thinking of that can be distracting from just actually being sitting up there looking and listening to the other person. So when I can be really, really present I think that helps me be the best host that I can be.
When I’m present, I become an advocate for the audience. I want to be asking the questions that are also occurring to the people who are listening to the radio show and attending the live show. If somebody says something, I want my response to be what the person in the audience is like, “Oh, I was going to ask that” or “Oh, I wanted to know the answer to that.”
I think sometimes, particularly in public radio, things get very scripted. You get hosts who just want to read through their list of questions. That can be really useful, but I want try to be flexible enough that I’m actually really experiencing the conversation as it’s happening and asking the next logical question. Sometimes there are interviews that I hear in the media or even on network television where the interview subject says something that’s totally ridiculous and the person interviewing them just goes on to their next preplanned question instead of stopping and saying, “Wait, why would say that?” “What did you mean by that?” “How did that feel?”
I’m hoping that I’m able to ask the questions that an average person would ask, because I’m basically an average person. I somehow weaseled my way into this job of being a public radio host, but this is somewhat new to me. Ten years ago, I was 30 years old, I had just stopped being a producer at KUOW in Seattle, and I had just moved to LA to be a booker for National Public Radio. So my job was to try to schedule guests for the real hosts to talk to. So it’s not that long ago that I was the person more or less sitting in the audience listening, and having my own thoughts and questions. Now, by some bizarre set of circumstances, I’m the guy up there talking into the microphone. But I still feel very connected to everybody who’s just out there in radioland having their own set of questions in their mind. So I try to channel that as much as I can.
How do you feel like Seattle influenced your approach to radio?
Starting at a young age I was an obsessed listener to Seattle radio. I’d listen to Chet Buchanan on KHIT hosting The Party Line, which was like a thing you could call into and they would let you make a dedication request, but you could like tell a joke or do an impression if you had one. I was maybe nine years old and I did a really terrible Ronald Reagan impression, and I would call every night and do my Reagan impression until Chet Buchanan told me that I needed to stop calling in or I needed to get some better material.
I used to listen to this show on KIRO AM called Sportsline with Wayne Cody. I would just listen night in and night out. And there were so many nights where they had nothing interesting to talk about, and things would just get kind of weird and I just dug that for some reason. So the Seattle Radio was kind of seeping into me from a pretty young age.
As far as my sensibility on stage, I think I bring a lot of Seattle to that as well. Because I’m not the person who’s probably going to try to make it intentionally uncomfortable for someone I’m interviewing. A generous way to describe it is I want to maintain a certain level of civility. If you’re not being generous, you might say I’m being a little bit passive aggressive. I interview people like somebody who grew up in Seattle, which means I want to ask the questions I want to ask, and I want to try to get the honest answer. But I’m also not going to have it out with somebody on stage in front of everybody, because I think that’s going to make it weird. I’m not looking to make it weird—in that kind of classic Seattle way. You know… we’re in line somewhere and we see somebody with 25 items in the 10 items line, and we’re all kind of mad at them, but we’re not going to challenge them in a fight right there in the QFC because that’s not the Seattle way. I think I have a little bit of that. When I’m interviewing people to achieve my goals, but I don’t do it in a way that’s overly confrontational, which I’m sure is a result of where I grew up.
Are there any dream guests for Live Wire?
I’d love to talk to Jeff Tweedy, because I’ve been a huge fan of Wilco forever and I find him really funny too. I’ve seen him play solo a number of times, and to just see him on stage with just a guitar and his observations on the room is a delight. My claim to fame years ago happened when Tweedy came through on a solo tour at the old Crocodile Café—the fact that I even called it the “Crocodile Café” is showing my age. And he was being super funny, but all these dudes kept yelling shit in between his songs. And they weren't funny, interesting things, they were just random, inane things. It was like 1998 music nerds trying to be like Jeff Tweedy noticed me. And it was taking up time and he wasn’t able to get through as many songs because he had to respond to everyone. And at one point, I just yelled at a guy, “Shut the fuck up!” And it got picked up on the bootleg recording of that show. And this was in like the olden days, almost pre-internet, so if you wanted a bootleg of that show, it was like a CD ordered through the mail from someone. I got the CD, and in between two songs you can just hear me yell “Shut the fuck up!” to a guy on the recording. I was like I made it. I still have the CD.
You know who else I’d love to have on the show? Gabourey Sidibe. She played Precious, and is on Empire. I follow her on Twitter. She is fucking hilarious. Like I feel that we are kindred spirits even though we’re from extremely different backgrounds. I’ve actually put that one out there and our producers are working on it.
What are you excited about in regards to the upcoming Seattle edition of Live Wire?
Well I’m really excited to talk to Misha Collins, who’s a guy on a TV show called Supernatural. But he’s also the guy behind this scavenger hunt called Gishwhes, which is a project that get’s thousands and thousands of people doing all kinds of fun, weird stuff and a lot of that goes to charity. He’s actually a friend of mine in Bellingham, where we both live. So the fact that we’re going to get to sit on stage together and talk about all that stuff in Seattle is cool.
I’m excited to talk to Maria Semple, because her new book [Today Will Be Different] is really funny to me and really resonates with my experience. It’s basically the story of a person who’s trying to be the kind of best version of themselves. I think we all have that little conversation in our head constantly: the way that we know we should be and yet the way that we are probably tend to be a lot of the time—that little angel and devil conversation.
We’re going to have Telekinesis there as our guest band, and I’ve just been a fan of Telekinesis for years and years and years. This is going to be multiple things going on that are like my favorite things in the world on stage in my hometown of Seattle with a bunch of my actual family in the audience at the Neptune Theatre.
And maybe most excitingly for me, it’s our last show of the season. So the whole staff of our show’s going to have a karaoke blowout afterwards, and that is probably only slightly less exciting to me than hosting this radio show in front of all these people.
Live Wire! with Luke Burbank
Dec 9 at 8, Neptune Theatre, $19–$34