Sunday, July 12, 2009
"Listener Ben Bass of Chicago" here.
That's how you might have heard me described on the radio this morning during the weekly puzzle segment of Weekend Edition Sunday on National Public Radio, when New York Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzlemaster Will Shortz was kind enough to use a brain-teaser I submitted as this week's listener challenge.
Every Sunday morning, Mr. Shortz presents a puzzle and invites listeners to submit the answer. One lucky person is chosen at random from among each week's correct respondents and invited to solve a series of stumpers on the air. Then at the end of the segment he presents a new listener challenge and the cycle continues.
I've been tuning in to the NPR puzzle segment for many years, going back to the Mesozoic days when listeners would send their answers on postcards. I think it was due to the post-9/11 anthrax scare that they shifted to email, and for the last few years submissions have been via the NPR website.
Getting chosen at random to play on the air is nearly impossible. In an easy week, maybe 2500 people submit the correct answer, and even when it's a toughie, 200 or more people will solve it. I've submitted hundreds of correct answers to easy and hard puzzles alike and never gotten the call. (Meanwhile, countless first-timers have.) Sometimes I don't even bother sending in the answer, figuring it's too easy and I'll never get chosen. Other times I forget to submit it. Neither of these helps my chances much.
In my personal experience, it's actually way harder to be selected to play the puzzle on NPR than it is to get on Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy!. If you can pass the screening tests for those shows, your chances of getting on are pretty good. In each case I was lucky enough to make the cut and the next thing I knew I was in a TV studio. On the radio, though, it's a lower bar, hence a bigger pool, plus they only use about fifty people a year.
Last winter I attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn, which Will Shortz founded back in 1978. On Saturday evening, "Game Show Night" in the packed hotel ballroom, I managed to win a trivia contest hosted by Newsday crossword editor Stanley Newman. Mr. Shortz generously presented me with a prize, a signed book of Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles. Plus I was sitting with a bunch of NYT puzzle constructors at the time, some of whom had puzzles in the book, so they passed it around and autographed it too.
Even though it wasn't on the radio, it was still pretty sweet. In fact, it felt like more of an achievement than getting picked to play on the air. Winning a general knowledge contest in a room filled with the world's crossword puzzle elite, some of the brightest and best-informed people on the planet? Then getting a completely unnecessary prize for it from a guy I so enjoy and admire, Will Shortz? It was thrilling, humbling and more than excitement enough for me. After over a decade of sending in correct answers and not getting on the radio, I figured that was my Will Shortz moment.
But even if you can't get your name picked out of a hat, there's another way to get some puzzle props on NPR's air. Although Mr. Shortz writes a lot of the listener challenges himself, he also uses quizzes written by his friends in the puzzle community -- math gurus, crossword constructors and the like -- and by regular listeners like you and me.
Some years ago, I submitted a few NPR puzzles to Mr. Shortz for his consideration. Several of them seemed just right for the radio and I was optimistic that he might use them, but for whatever reason he never did. Maybe it was because I sent them via snail-mail to the New York Times; for all I knew he never even received them. The only way I would have known for sure was if one of them ended up on the air.
Then I competed in a Chicago crossword tournament last spring and wrote about it. This led to my being put in email contact with Will Shortz, which in turn rekindled my interest in suggesting NPR puzzles. Just as submitting a Talk of the Town article to the New Yorker led to my starting this blog, so did my hijinks in the crossword world inspire me to create more puzzles. Plus, now armed with Will's email address, at least I knew that he'd see my submissions. (Now that we've reached the point in the tale where Will and I became email correspondents, I'll dispense with calling him Mr. Shortz.)
From time to time, Will gives a listener challenge on the radio that someone else in turn uses as a jumping-off point to create a new challenge. It was this type of evolution that led to my radio puzzle.
There was a recent puzzle whose answer was the actor Kevin Kline. Crossword constructor Henry Hook then weighed in three weeks ago with a related puzzle. He observed that the name KEVIN KLINE in all capital letters is spelled with two five-letter words, each consisting of 13 straight line segments and no curves, then challenged listeners to find the name of another celebrity in two five-letter words, each spelled with 14 line segments and no curves. The answer was my onetime TV acquaintance VANNA WHITE.
In solving the Vanna White puzzle, I happened to notice that there was a genre of music, also in two five-letter words, also spelled using only straight-line letters. I counted its line segments, noticed it was 15 and 15, and quickly realized that I had stumbled upon another NPR puzzle. Not my most elegant one, but viable enough and a nifty extension of the precedent.
I emailed it in to Will Shortz, who responded enthusiastically that he liked it and might use it on the air. He said he'd let me know if he were going to. But he didn't use it the following week, then I went overseas for a week at Wimbledon. I was preoccupied with my trip, missed the next puzzle while I was away (also not mine) and never heard back from Will. By the time I returned I'd forgotten about the whole thing.
So imagine my surprise to hear my name coming out of my radio. I was as startled as if I'd been chosen to play on the air. As it happened, two people posted congratulations on my Facebook before the puzzle segment hit the airwaves in Chicago, but I was groggy early in the morning after being up late and didn't understand what they were talking about.
Both guys were puzzle pals of mine (which you tend to collect when you make a standing offer on your blog to email puzzle hints to those in need) but even that didn't tip me off. I couldn't put two and two together, having forgotten about my own puzzle. And I'm glad I was that dumb because I was completely surprised an hour later as I listened to the broadcast.
As it happened, my puzzle aired on a special edition of the show celebrating host Liane Hansen's twenty years at the helm of Weekend Edition Sunday. To mark the occasion, they played live before a studio audience at NPR's Washington, D.C. headquarters that included such radio grandees as Daniel Schorr, Susan Stamberg and Scott Simon. Will usually tapes the puzzle segment from his New York area home, but this week he was in Baltimore running the National Puzzlers League convention and he drove down the road to host the special event in person. The listener who played on the air was excellent. And then this week's challenge was presented by actor Stacy Keach, who's in Washington playing King Lear. My puzzle and my name sounded great in his mellifluous intonation. He's got the pipes.
It feels good all the way around. If I can't get picked to play on the air, getting my own original puzzle on the air is a hell of a consolation prize. Being a part of the special 20th anniversary show was cool. And even the timing worked out well. Last week I was overseas, and most Sunday mornings this summer during puzzle time I'm on court playing doubles for my tennis team, so I usually miss the broadcast. This week, though, I'm back from my trip and my team has a bye, so I got to hear my name on the radio.
An audio file of the entire live in-studio Washington puzzle segment appears on the NPR website here. There are also condensed video highlights, which provide a rare glimpse of the people whose voices we hear as we drive around. A lot of the radio segment (including yours truly) got edited out of the video, but it's still worth checking out.
Thanks to Will Shortz for providing another fun chapter in my puzzling life. And hey, maybe you'll have better luck than I have in getting picked to play on the air. Solve my puzzle and submit your answer here.