In Texas, a local public radio show defies the ‘Google it’ age

Jeff Whittington, host of KERA's Anything You Ever Wanted to Know. Photo by Tamar Wilner.

“Where can I learn electronic music production?” “How do I realign an antique bed frame?” “Will my brother and I get the same genetic testing results?”

These were a few of the questions listeners had when I sat in on a recent broadcast of Anything You Ever Wanted to Know, the weekly live call-in show on Dallas NPR affiliate KERA that traces its origins back to the 1990s. The show, which has aired in a stand-alone format hosted by Jeff Whittington since 2006, is something of an area institution; as its folky style and low-stakes concerns charm some, so does its mere existence, in the era of Google and Facebook and Yelp, baffle others.

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Anything You Ever Wanted to Know is both cutting edge and anachronistic. Listeners supply their questions as well as answers to other inquiries—a sort of analog version of social media. In some ways, the show is a precursor to media start-ups like Hearken and Pulse, which solicit reader questions in an effort to make coverage more relevant and strengthen the relationship between journalists and their audience. At a time when countless queries prompt the same immediate answer—“Google it”—it surprises that Anything listeners wait until Fridays at noon to pose their questions and hope for replies.

Whittington, KERA executive producer for special projects, hosts the show in a soft, measured voice. Even as he and his team—producer Stephen Becker, associate producer Samantha Guzman, and volunteer phone screener Fiona Norton—juggle phone calls, emails and tweets, Whittington works with an ease that makes each Anything broadcast feel like an hour spent dawdling over pancakes and slow-running syrup.

Listeners to the show aren’t just the Googlers; they’re Google too. The audience calls, emails, and tweets in with solutions to conundrums that can range from household pest control to the origins of the universe. Some draw on personal experience, and a few on professional expertise. Occasionally Whittington will chime in with answers to frequently asked questions, or one of the producers will research a question online. Response rates vary greatly, and sometimes replies don’t come until the following week. On a recent show, I counted 28 questions, and about a dozen got answered that day.

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I sat down with Whittington to talk about how he forges connections with his listeners, and whether a show like his still matters in the “Google-it” age. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

There’s a woman in Murphy named Rhonda who calls in a lot with gardening questions, and Maggie in Fort Worth who answers a lot of them.

 

How did Anything You Ever Wanted to Know first come about?

It was created on the spur of the moment by a former talk show host here, Glenn Mitchell. Glenn is a legendary character in the halls here at KERA, and he died suddenly in the fall of 2005. Glenn had been working here since the early seventies when the radio station started. Supposedly he was here the day the switch was flipped on.

He would fill in on an evening talk show we used to have, before he got his own show in 1995. And occasionally, something goes haywire with the schedule and a live guest doesn’t show up or isn’t there when you call or doesn’t make it to the remote studio. And so Glenn just said, I have an idea: Call me and ask any question and I’ll answer it. And he quickly realized as calls started coming in, they needed people to help answer the questions. And the whole Anything You Ever Wanted to Know idea was born.

 

How would you describe your relationship with your listeners?

I really do feel like I have a relationship with them. There’s a part of me that is more thrilled, but partly surprised, and then also relieved that people call into the show every week, because if people didn’t call in, we wouldn’t have the show.

The listeners are the only people I’m talking to. On an interview show you have a guest, but this is different. I’m not a reporter, but sometimes I do interview people a little bit. I want to know a little bit more about what it is they’re asking, or they’ll bring up something that’s just fascinating. My theory is always, if you’re doing a live interview and a question pops into your mind, there’s a pretty good chance that someone in your audience has that question, too.

We get some pretty personal questions sometimes too, and we try to avoid those to a degree. And I always want to make sure that people are careful about the kind of advice that they get for legal or medical or those kinds of questions. But I’ve gotten messages from people personally, off the air, who were looking for help and felt like they could ask me for advice. And that’s a pretty serious thing.

 

What did you do in those situations?

I tried to help them sort it out. People have emailed asking for advice on finding counseling services and things like that. There are a lot of different resources out there in our community that we hear about and that we as journalists can turn to for an expert perspective. So trying to help people find that path. It’s not that tough.

 

There was an example on today’s show, right? Someone wanted a list of psychiatric resources.

Yes, and we got someone on Twitter who recommended PsychologyToday.com, which actually is a good resource for listings for counselors by specialty. That was a really good answer, and maybe that connected somebody.

 

Do you have any regulars?

Yeah, there are some regular callers and regular emailers. There’s one guy who is a defensive-driving instructor, so he can always be counted on to answer questions about traffic issues or merging. There was a guy named Frank in Duncanville who has a really cool, very raspy voice. He always has a question. Then there’s a guy at the University of Texas-Dallas’s Center for Space Sciences named Marc Hairston, who answers a lot of our space exploration questions. There’s a woman in Murphy named Rhonda who calls in a lot with gardening questions, and Maggie in Fort Worth who answers a lot of them.

 

It seems like there are some niche questions that I tend to hear a lot of: gardening, antiques, home repair, bugs and critters. What else do people want answers to?

Occasionally we do “evergreen” shows with popular questions, and sometimes we interview experts. This year we did one where we interviewed Neil Sperry, a gardening expert. We interviewed two traffic detectives from the Dallas Police Department about traffic questions, and then we did a segment with Marc Hairston about space. Those are three topics we get a lot of questions about.

We get tons of food questions—Where can I find this specific food that I love? We get travel questions. But we want it to be an experience where people can learn, where people can come together, where people are treated with respect. There’s a civil discourse element to what we do, and I’m all for debate when it comes to, What’s that thing on the side of the road of whatever highway? The stakes aren’t as high. But it’s really not the place to get into a political, philosophical, or religious debate.

 

What about serious community issues? Things that really affect the quality of people’s lives?

We’ve had some questions like that, like people having disputes with their neighbors or legal issues. That’s when it’s kind of disclaimer time. I typically encourage folks to ask their colleagues or friends or people they know. It’s tough to answer those things. People call in and say, “I’m an attorney,” and that’s great, we’ll usually take that. At the same time, it’s just a radio show. People are literally just calling, and we don’t even know who they are. So there’s a little bit of a line here.

 

There was an intriguing final call today. [A caller referenced a group that he claimed raised medical prices every two months. “I don’t think most people know it,” said the caller, who termed the group a “cartel.” Whittington’s response, in the few seconds he had left on air: “Hey, thanks.”] I thought, Either this guy really knows something that I’m not aware of, or this is a conspiracy theory he got from somewhere.

That is the dilemma for every single piece of information.

 

That doesn’t drive you a little bit crazy? The thought that what a person says might be complete bunk?

It’s going to work itself out, right? Like Glenn used to say, we have the smartest audience in radio. For the most part, we get pretty good info, and it is really stuff that’s kinda un-Googleable, or stuff that people really want a different perspective on.

 

You can’t take the public radio out of the show. I’m really curious and I think that’s something that’s across the board here—everybody really is interested and curious and endlessly fascinated.

 

What do you say to people who tell you, “Why don’t you just Google it?”

Everybody says that, everybody I meet at parties. But the show is about more than just getting the information. It’s this place where people can exchange and contribute and be a part of something.

 

Is it possible that perhaps you’re reaching some people for whom Google isn’t really an option?

I don’t have any empirical evidence, but I imagine that is the case. Public radio is a public service and lots of folks listen to us because they don’t pay for cable.

 

Do you get a lot of repeat questions?

Literally, “diatomaceous earth” is the dust that never settles. There are people on Twitter who will tweet me like an emoji of a mug of beer or something. They’re playing some sort of diatomaceous earth drinking game, when it gets mentioned on the show.

 

How about the most interesting question?

The space questions are really great. One person wanted to know what it would literally take to build a space station that had gravity. Someone asked about the conditions in the universe at the instant just after the Big Bang. And we got some really good answers. There’s actually a whole field of study about the instant of inflation of the universe.

The space station question was answered by a couple of people. One was very technical and would have been difficult to read on the air, but I asked Marc Hairston from UTD this question in an interview and he told me that a spinning station that would create gravity is impractical since it would need to be so big to work and the bigger the station the higher the cost to build and maintain. Plus, part of the reason for going to space [right now] is to do research in zero gravity.

You can’t take the public radio out of the show. I’m really curious and I think that’s something that’s across the board here—everybody really is interested and curious and endlessly fascinated. But it’s also about the listeners and their curiosity and their need to be part of the conversation. They also want to be heard. So this is a place that pays attention.

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Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.