WBHM 90.3 FM, Birmingham’s public radio station, brought NPR’s Scott Simon to the Lyric Theatre on Saturday, June 10, for a live broadcast of Weekend Edition.
Fans rose early Saturday morning to get through the door and in their seats by 6:30 a.m. in time for the start of the 7 a.m. broadcast. The Lyric Theater was transformed into a makeshift, yet magnificent radio studio with the Weekend Edition’s production crew and their equipment set up in front of the stage. Simon was front and center on stage with a few stools for the special guests scheduled to come for the live segments.
“We’re not fancy here,” WBHM General Manager Chuck Holmes confessed. “You’re getting to see behind the curtain.”
And though Holmes didn’t consider this “fancy,” plenty of audience members seemed to feel quite fancy experiencing this.
“This is so cool!” I heard one nearby audience member say minutes before the broadcast began. “I’m so excited!” another attendee exclaimed.
The broadcast featured live music from Alabama’s own John Paul White, whose vocals were just as effortlessly strong, yet smooth as they are on his 2016 release “Beulah.”
The live broadcast gave attendees a behind-the-scenes look into how the Weekend Edition is produced each week. It felt like being in the studio but better, because you weren’t in a cramped room, but in the majestic Lyric Theatre surrounded by more than 700 fellow public radio nerds.
The significance of this broadcast being held at the Lyric wasn’t lost on me or Simon. As I sat just a few rows from the stage I knew that had I been alive and in this theater many, many decades ago I would have only been allowed to sit in the balcony.
As Simon shared, the Lyric opened in 1914 as a vaudeville house and, of course, when it opened, and for most of the 20th century, segregation was the law in Alabama. Blacks were allowed to come to the Lyric but had to use a smaller entrance and sit on bare benches in the top balcony.
“There is no cause for those of us from the north to feel smug,” Simon said. “There may not have been signs that said “colored entrance” in the great theaters of New York or Chicago, but audiences were usually segregated just as effectively.”
When the Lyric was restored a few years ago, Birmingham Landmarks, the non-profit organization behind the restoration, decided to mark and memorialize the historic Colored Entrance.
“It reminds us not just of a painful history we share across America, but of the fact that history can turn,” Simon said.
Simon said he found it fitting for the Weekend Edition broadcast to take place in what was once a vaudeville theater.
“I like to think of what Weekend Edition does as a kind of news variety show: politics, war and peace, stage and films, sports, joy, strife and life in full,” he said.
I found it fitting that the broadcast took place inside a landmark with a storied, but segregated past in a city that can be described the same way, something made clear from many of the pre-recorded segments we listened to during the broadcast.
While in Birmingham, Simon interviewed civil rights activist Rev. Calvin Woods about his experiences at the A.G. Gaston Motel, which was built to be a place where Blacks of note could stay when the South was segregated, a motel where Dr. Martin Luther King and his fellow foot soldiers often stayed when they visited Birmingham. The motel is currently set to be restored as a civil rights national monument.
Simon also covered Birmingham’s food scene, interviewing Frank Stitt of lauded restaurants like Chez Fon Fon and Highlands Bar & Grill, the chef often credited with putting our city on the food scene map by taking down-home ingredients and turning them into “haute cuisine.” Simon tried Stitt’s famous grits and declared they were so good he heard “Hank Williams sing along with a chorus of angels.”
Simon also profiled Chef Clayton Sherrod, an African American man who got his start cooking in the kitchen of a segregated country club. “We went through a hell of a lot,” Sherrod told Simon candidly. Sherrod became the first black executive chef at that segregated country club just 8 years after he started working as a dishwasher. Today he owns a catering company, often appears on television for his food expertise and recently started a culinary school at Lawson State Community College.
In an interview with WBHM’s Michael Krall prior to Saturday’s show, Simon said that while in Alabama he especially wanted to get a variety of perspectives and even gain insight into the lives of people who voted for President Donald Trump, people who feel they’ve been getting the short end of the stick with regard to economic issues. Simon spoke with three residents who were among the 1100 people who lost their jobs when U.S. Steel closed its blast furnace in Fairfield in 2015.
One interviewee declared he voted for Trump, despite being a staunch Democrat in the past, because he believes Trump understands the condition of the working man, which he feels Democrats have been ignoring. Another interviewee admitted he feels dismayed to see that so many local gas station attendants and owners are immigrants, a statement that elicited gasps and sighs from the audience members listening to this pre-recorded segment.
Attending a live broadcast meant you were not only listening to Weekend Edition but you were a part of the show, as we got to applaud and cheer between segments and were invited to ask questions of some of the guests on stage.
One of the live guests during Saturday’s show was Congresswoman Terri Sewell, the U.S. Representative for Alabama’s 7th congressional district. Congresswoman Sewell discussed “Project R.E.A.D.Y” which stands for Realizing Every one’s Ability to Develop Yourself. This initiative consists of a series of workforce training workshops conducted throughout the 7th congressional district by career professionals in partnership with educational institutions and other members of the Congresswoman Sewell’s Workforce Advisory Council and is meant to address the problems faced by residents like those interviewed in Fairfield.
“I’m not waiting for Washington to fix the problem,” Sewell said. “I’m trying to leverage resources we already have.”
NPR national correspondent Debbie Elliott and Birmingham’s own John Archibald of AL.com also took the stage to discuss Alabama’s political scandals including, of course, the resignation of former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.
Audience participation was encouraged through the show but Simon urged us to keep our reactions nonpartisan. NPR is after all a news organization charged with not only being accurate and fair, but also impartial. This didn’t stop some folks from booing State Auditor Jim Zeigler when he declared that most Alabamians thought that former FBI director James Comey’s testimony and recent hearings were “much ado about nothing.”
Despite the heavy content of many of the segments, Simon kept us laughing, too, especially when he wasn’t on air. In fact, just before the live broadcast began, Simon looked out to the production team and asked, “Wait! We’re not going to do this show live are we?!”
Saturday’s show included a short tribute to Pete’s Hot Dogs and a segment on oyster farming. WBHM’s Andrew Yeager took the stage to discuss his recent story on a the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington located in Columbiana, Alabama. Birmingham’s own Jeh Jeh Pruitt of WBRC FOX 6 took the stage to talk sports.
Saturday’s broadcast included an Alabama education success story, too. For the past eight years Advanced Placement exam scores in math, science and English have risen more in Alabama than in any other state in the country. Mary Boehm, president of the Advance Placement exam preparation program A+ College Ready, took the stage with Vanessa Layfield, a graduating senior from Leeds who has already earned two top AP scores.
“We are really proud to be number one in something other than football,” Boehm said.
And on the day Batman fans learned of the death of actor Adam West, Simon reminded us that Birmingham once had a Batman of its own. Willie Perry of Titusville, who worked in the cast iron furniture business, heard about a woman being attacked after her car broke down and he decided to do something about it. In the early to mid 1980s Perry drove his customized 1971 Ford Thunderbird (known as the Batmobile Rescue Ship) around Birmingham offering roadside assistance to stranded motorists and giving out free rides. Perry, who died in 1985, became a local hero and was dubbed the Birmingham Batman.
What a wonderful way to remind listeners that we can all do our part to make our city a better place.