Lightning in a bottle: remembering Richard Sher

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The intercom buzzed. “Richard Sher is on the phone, wants to talk to you.”

I had never met Richard and was excited to be on the other end of the line with the creator, host and progenitor of the wonderfully witty program Says You!  No one else sounds like Richard, and there he was, calling in to ask about the health and well-being of just about everyone on the WRVO staff, individually, by name. Says You! had drawn big, enthusiastic audiences here in upstate New York in the past, and Richard was calling to say a taping date elsewhere had fallen through and to ask if we could arrange one the weekend before Thanksgiving.

A few years earlier, Says You! had sold out two Syracuse theaters on the same weekend in what became WRVO’s major outreach event of the season. But 2012 was different, and Richard was calling at the end of August. Ken Rudin had headlined a sold-out “Political Junkie” donor event just two months earlier, and we were on air promoting an appearance by Diane Rehm in late October. Won’t we confuse our audience — and maybe hurt attendance at the October event — by promoting both at the same time? I asked. Richard assured me that Says You! listeners would spread the word on their own once he announced the dates on his show, that we could hold our station promos until after the October event and all would be fine.

But what about venues? A quick check confirmed every theater and other suitable space in the area was booked, as would be expected, for the first weekend of the holiday season. And compelling musical acts? Probably booked for the holidays as well or headed out of town.

I was skeptical that we could get it all done. Richard was not, and he was right. Things came together, Diane Rehm was another sell-out in October, and nearly 2,000 Says You! fans turned up in November.

We organized receptions around each show to give listeners an opportunity to meet Richard and the cast. One young couple, long-time fans and both blind, arrived just before curtain time. In a precious moment, panelists Tony Kahn, Carolyn Faye Fox, Arnie Reisman, Paula Lyons and Murray Horwitz held the show briefly to spend time with them and hold their hands, thereby linking forever one familiar voice after another to the real flesh and blood they could not see.

There were many other instances of genuinely friendly interactions with fans through the weekend. The Says You! gang is a generous, accommodating ensemble of gracious souls of the highest order.

Seeing the cast in action makes a mockery of the notion of the disembodied radio voice. These are real people happy to be put on the spot and to survive by their wits — and witticisms — in full view of live audiences full of smart people like them. The whole quirky apparatus — dividing panelists into teams, assigning points on whim as much as merit, Richard’s good-natured admonitions to panelists and audience members alike — has the appearance of an old-fashioned parlor game that everybody knows is just for fun.

Says You! is smart, fresh, spontaneous, often hilarious — and often due to Richard’s derring-do in the edit bay. It makes superb radio. No fancy technology, audience-friendly, every program an instant evergreen. Richard controlled the entire process — scheduled tapings, sold tickets, hired local talent, set up staging, microphones, props.

And he was gifted at sweetening the final product through clever editing that amplified the best aspects of each show — tighten a pause in conversation here, stretch a “Oh, now I get it!” flash of insight there, repair a fumbled line by forcing a repeat live and on stage with the interjection of an audible edit point or by nudging the cast to extend remarks on a particular subject in hopes that some spot-on formulation, wrapped in a cascade of delightful audience reaction, might tumble into a microphone.

It had been a great night. The panelist were at the top of their game, the audience right at their shoulders, the acoustics right on the money. Richard was clearly enjoying the sparkle. His bottomless basket of edit-friendly ad libs was not needed to keep things moving. When the show ended and the audience began to file out, I noticed him lingering at the podium, drinking it in.

I went over to thank him for a great event and to express my hope that the show would go on forever. He said, “Sometimes it all comes together so well it’s like capturing lightning in a bottle, and tonight was one of those nights.”

To those of us who labor in the trenches of public radio, Richard Sher was the genuine article. He created a terrific show from a basic concept accessible to anyone with a sense of humor and broad curiosity. No cumbersome mechanicals, no phalanx of producers. Richard was the producer, editor, and promoter, the wizard behind the curtain with the intellectual and professional chops to make it all come together week after week, year after year.

He was, after all, the lightning in the bottle that has brought so much delight to so many listeners for so long. Thank you, Richard. Your show must go on.

Michael S. Ameigh is g.m. of WRVO Public Media and assistant provost for budget and operations at the State University of New York at Oswego.