PDX Postcard: Live Wire Celebrates 15 Years of Home-Grown Radio Variety
By Julie Snyder
The first time I went to a live taping of Live Wire, Portland’s quirky, home-grown radio variety show, the draw was Ruth Reichl, former (and final) editor of the now-defunct Gourmet Magazine. The unexpected and abrupt folding of the publication in 2009 had driven her to the kitchen for therapy cooking and reminiscing.
Host Luke Burbank turned a culinary tragedy into sympathetic comedy. Ruth was on her game, with witty comebacks and charming anecdotes about the foodie life. It was a delicious event, especially because tickets to the show included a copy of My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life.
“Radio variety for cultural omnivores,” is how Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) describes the 15-year-old show on its website. “It’s music from up-and-coming bands, original comedy, performance and scintillating interviews with writers, filmmakers, comedians and people who think cool thoughts.” The hour-long show airs on OPB every Saturday afternoon.
Conceived in 2003 as a younger, hipper version of Prairie Home Companion, Live Wire is taped in front a live audience, most often at Alberta Rose Theatre, a renovated 1920’s movie house in Northeast Portland. Amiable Luke Burbank plays ringmaster for the nationally syndicated program, with Announcer Elena Passarello as his frequent foil, and a house band to keep the theatre’s 300-member audience entertained between guests.
Burbank, Live Wire host since 2013, is a radio regular. He’s a panelist and fill-in host for Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me and an occasional guest on This American Life and CBS Sunday Morning. Since 2008, he and Andrew Walsh have co-hosted, Too Beautiful to Live, a daily weekday podcast taped in Seattle with an irreverent take on current events, popular culture and random topics (like Burbank’s weight on that day and hot dog etiquette).
The last time I joined the always-lively studio audience, the featured guest was Portland endurance athlete, Colin O’Brady, fresh off his record-breaking unaided solo trek across Antarctica. The 54-day adventure was brutal. It was impossible for those of us in the audience to imagine the physical, psychological and spiritual strength it had taken to drag a 375-lb. sled over 932 frozen miles.
The journey had its light moments. O’Brady’s wife Jenna, also his expedition planner, arranged a surprise call from Paul Simon, whose “Graceland” album was an audio staple during the frigid journey.
“I’m in the middle of nowhere and haven’t spoken to anybody in 37 days at this point other than my wife,” O’Brady recalled. Burbank jumped in “And the first person you talked to was Paul Simon? What if it had been Garfunkel?”
No need to cue the audience laughter at a Live Wire taping—it’s spontaneous and frequent as the fast-paced banter and parade of guests roll on.
Shows typically coalesce around a theme, and for this production, “Icebreakers” was especially apt. Before the main attraction, Burbank and Passarello riffed on personal experiences with conversation starters before sharing a few submitted by audience members. (“What were you doing half your life ago,” “How’s the crab dip?” “Have you been to Burning Man?”)
For me, Live Wire and its carefree hour of lively entertainment—whether in person or on the radio—is a refreshing respite from digital overload.
In celebration of Live Wire’s 15th anniversary, the Fall 2019 season features an entertaining line-up including humorist Mo Rocca, author Chuck Klosterman, comedian Rhys Darby, and activist Megan Phelps-Roper. Tickets, including season passes, are available on the Live Wire website.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel, and the Green Bay Packers.