After almost three decades of hosting the 8 O’Clock Buzz, Jonathan Zarov is stepping away from the microphone.
Zarov has, for most of his time at WORT, hosted the 8 O’Clock Buzz on Fridays, providing listeners an eclectic blend of segments. An improviser, he’s at home behind the mic, guiding listeners to unexpected places. He’s interviewed thousands of guests, and likely holds the WORT record for most public stunts while hosting.
He’s also one of the original hosts of the Buzz. Zarov started off on Tuesdays, when the show replaced the Breakfast Special in 1993.
After several years, he switched to hosting on Fridays. And along with the show’s volunteer producer, engineer, DJ, and receptionist, the Friday 8 O’Clock Buzz has helped set the stage for the weekend to come for countless listeners. As his time hosting comes to a close, I interviewed Zarov about what he’s learned after hosting the show for approximately 28 years.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Chali: So, when did you start hosting the Buzz and how did that come to be?
Jonathan: That’s the softball question? I don’t know. I’m pretty sure I’ve been hosting for 28 years. I remember having my daughter on my shoulders when she needed a bottle, so it would have been about 1993.
The way it happened was… The Breakfast Special was this legendary show. I think it was the only paid hosting position at WORT. It was one person for a long time. Michael Feldman, of course, is the most famous person, but there’s a bunch of people who have come through there who have done things in radio afterwards.
They had people do little bits. So I would go down to what was at the time Cleveland’s and do this book review. Then I got interested in subbing. And I remember just being petrified when the engineer left – they came in and set up all the remote gear and then just left – they said “you’ll do great!” [laughs] You know, I just remember being really, really scared.
And that show was long. And you would often start out slow, talking about your dreams if you felt like it. They programmed music, and you would talk to the engineer back at the station, and they would take you in and out of music. You would have regular guests that they booked for it. And then sometimes you just talked to people who would walk up. Famously, Lily Tomlin came in and started waitressing during a Breakfast Special show at Dolly’s, but that’s way before the time I’m talking about.
So, I would sub here and there. I applied to be the permanent host, but I didn’t get chosen. The person who was hired had a much more mainstream presence. I don’t know how it happened, but I think the station decided they didn’t want to do it anymore. And then she quit two weeks before it was supposed to end. So then they came to me because they had two weeks to fill, and they said we’ll pay you to do this. So I had the really weird experience of doing the show for two weeks — at the time it was at Monty’s — doing this show for two weeks, the only time I was ever paid for doing radio – doing the last show of this epic, cultural institution in Madison.
It was really strange to clean up that way. I remember I called Michael Feldman, and I said, we’re doing the last show, would you like to go down with the ship?” And he said, “I think I’ll let it sink without me.”
I remember Ken Lohnquist was on the show, and the show ended.
[WORT News Director] Mike Wassenaar was the one mainly in charge of what to put there. And he decided to go with what the Buzz is now. That’s sometimes why I’m so married to this format (three guests, interstitial music, etc) — because that was the formula they came up with that we started with.
The original crew was Jan Levine Thal, Linda Jameson, Tony Castañeda, me, and Jan Miyasaki. Now that I’m finishing off 28.5 years or whatever, I think I’ll be able to say that the Buzz crew has met about five times. So I guess we meet about every four and a half years…. Not even that often.
Chali: Okay, so it was the Breakfast Special and it becomes the 8 O’Clock Buzz —
Jonathan: That is the precise version! [chuckles]
Chali: — and did you always have, as you do now, the bent that music and arts coverage is a huge part of your show?
Jonathan: I tried to, but… My original day was Tuesdays, which I did for about 5, 6 years. What I was really interested in doing that was hard to do on Tuesdays was theatre. Jan Levine Thal was hosting the Buzz on Fridays, and she got great theatre guests. So she was the one in the best position to preview the weekend.
And I was, like, eying that spot and trying to do arts coverage but it was hard to do from Tuesday. And then she left, so I grabbed Friday, and then Stan Woodard came in and took Tuesday. I was just really happy to move to Fridays and that’s when I was really able to make it the show I wanted to and make it arts-focused.
Chali: And what is it about the arts…?
Jonathan: Well, there’s a lot of straightforward news out there in the world. But I think art is able to sneak up on an issue. Art is able to show you something that surprises you in a way that disarms you, and makes you understand it in a different way that a straightforward newscast can’t.
That’s probably my best answer, that isn’t just “well, I have to cover the news and I want to have a play on, too.”
Chali: You’ve interviewed quite a few big names over the years. What are some of those names?
Jonathan: Sure. I remember one of the early interviews I really enjoyed was Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet. Dan Savage was a really fun one because he was so sweet, and because it was just such a weird scene. I was a dad with young kids at the time, so I picked him up in my minivan, and then we were chatting in my minivan on the way over.
I guess I’ve interviewed a number of sexperts, and we’ve done a lot of LGBTQ+ and sexuality issues. And Susie Bright was a great one… and there’s a whole story there too — I’ll try to tell this quickly. I was working at University Health Services, and we would support Sex Out Loud. And they brought Susie Bright into town. And I get a call at my desk and it’s Susie Bright; she says, are you a real person? And I said ‘I think so.’” And she’s like, the students, they say they can put me up, and I just don’t want that. And I say oh, sure, you can stay with me. So Susie Bright planned to stay with me.
But what happened is that the students would always want to make a poster. And they just went off the rails — they had big graphic labia with type over it, so [State Representative] Steve Nass gets his undies in a bundle, and they start making all these waves and taking potshots at the university.
So I interviewed Susie Bright first before it all blew up, about her coming to talk. Then she comes to Madison, and it’s just blowing up. To the point where she was scared for her life walking into that lecture hall. It was really intense; the chancellor wrote a statement defending the right of the students to bring Susie Bright; that doesn’t happen very often.
So then, after her talk, I wanted to interview her again because all this political stuff had happened and it was really interesting. But she wanted to stay home, at my house, and do the interview by phone. So I go to the studio, and I call her, and I hear washing noises. And all of a sudden, I realize I’m interviewing Susie Bright, who is in my bathtub. So that was the most magically weird interview in a way…
Other ones that were cool, Tony Curtis. I asked him about Marilyn Monroe, and I was really surprised that it got his dander up, so many years later. The guy that just talked and talked was Peter Yarrow, from Peter, Paul and Mary.
And of course I’ve interviewed Russ Feingold, and Tammy Baldwin. I interviewed Howard Dean soon after he had that scream thing that took him down. And I interviewed John Dean, so sometimes when I was pitching guests I would say I’ve interviewed everyone from John Dean to Howard Dean.
And then there were the big stunts.
There was strip fundraising, there was the coffee run, there was the bike around the lake. There was a show called “Ice” that was all about doing stuff on the lake, so we did a remote from on top of Lake Mendota near the union. We got out on the lake and everyone was playing music by banging on the ice.
Chali: Tell me more about your stunts—what was the first stunt that you did?
Jonathan: The first thing that was sort of off, like, hey I can experiment with this more, is we did fake interviews, with my friend Steve Bear. They were a little bit Onion-esque except they would play out in improv real time. We stopped doing them somewhere around Trump, because it just felt too dangerous, and it got really difficult to do satire, because the world was more ridiculous than anything you could make up. There was a really silly one where this guy had a house-painting business where he would put all the paint in a trough around your house and then spray it with sugar water, and ants would run through the paint and paint the house.
And then there were ones that were more political and would play off of news things. And people would start calling in to complain when we were satirizing something in an outrageous way. The interviews were completely unscripted. Steve had a way of saying… “of course we’d never do [this slightly more outrageous thing], we’re very responsible,” that would make the whole thing both more craven and more believable.
And then the first stunt we did might have been strip fundraising. But the other big one that I did twice was 15 Seconds of Fame, which was an attempt to interview as many people as possible in an hour. And the joke there was that I had some pretty big names (Joan Cusack, Tom Tomorrow) that I could talk to for an hour, but I only talked to them for a few seconds.
The first one, we did it in a line outside of WORT. And Kia [Karlen], Geoff [Brady], and [Biff Blumfumgagnge] were sitting there right outside of WORT, playing stuff that was crazy improvised guest intro music. I realized they were good things to do around pledge drive time, because pledge drive shows can get a little tedious, and it was good to do something different.
Chali: Tell me more about the Caffeinated Posse Run.
Jonathan: There are different ways to get publicity. One way is to do something in a way that seems inefficient or unreasonable, and to be very committed to it. I come by that pretty honestly—it’s sort of like [my] plastic bag playing. If I were to smirk, it would be a lot less interesting. It’s partly people’s commitment to something really weird, and if you come by that commitment honestly… So if you get an idea that seems kinda odd, pursuing it to the nth degree is a way to amuse people. Because people kinda like when someone gets the bit between their teeth.
So, this is an idea I had. It seemed like a bad idea, because you don’t really want to drink coffee and run. That’s just not something you do. And you also don’t really run while playing instruments. It’s kind of a hard thing to explain, but it all does come down to a desire for authenticity and complete commitment.
I think I get so frustrated and disgusted with how often people think that putting tons of effort into making a million dollars is so reasonable. Like, everybody gets that. But what’s really interesting is to watch somebody do something that has no obvious payoff, to do something that they’re passionate about.
The hour-long show is like a haiku—that becomes a limiting factor.
Chali: So, you’re one of few talk hosts to have a committed DJ via Ankur Malhotra. How did that happen?
Jonathan: I was working in marketing at Overture, around 2007 or 2008. And this was when bloggers were just starting to be considered “media.” So I felt very edgy when we invited a blogger, Ankur, to our season media preview. That’s how I met him.
I think I had him on as a guest next. He was spinning vinyl as part of the segment. And he was great, so we asked him to keep doing it.
Chali: He saw a turntable and saw he had a job to do—
Jonathan: —right, exactly. [laughs] And we’re just such a good fit. We’re friends, and we spend a little bit of time outside the show together, but really it’s mostly Friday mornings, and it’s just such a rhythm for us. I so appreciate what he brings to the show.
When we were all in-person (before WORT shut down for COVID-19), he’d put the album on the turntable and would bring me the album cover [into the separate hosting studio] and it was just this wonderful artifact. Or he’d bring me another album that he had and say this is 180 grams…
Chali: So another staple of the show is the only Bike Traffic Report in the world (we think). Where did you ever get that idea?
Jonathan: I had the idea abstractly that you hear these car traffic reports, and they all vary. And I was thinking well if there would be a bike traffic report, there’d be almost nothing to say. So that was my first idea, is that it would be basically a joke.
We got this guy Peter Hart Brinson, and he was very good at it. And I would just ask Peter where he’s going that weekend, and that was kinda fun. Like if he happened to be planning to go to the Corn Fest, we’d make it seem like it was a celebrity appearance at the fest. It was supposed to be a parody of traditional media and a traditional traffic report.
Jeff from Revolution Cycles did it for a little bit, and eventually Rick [Cathcart, of Scram Couriers] took it over. He was the steadiest.
Chali: As you look at departing, what do you want future Buzz hosts to know? Do you have any advice?
Jonathan: There’s a good variety of shows on WORT, and they all have their niche. The 8 O’Clock Buzz has grown into something a little more personality-driven.
Another thing is that I like to go from the ridiculous to the sublime. I think that walking that line can be a really rich place to be. Life is joyful, and it’s tragic, and it’s deeply meaningful, and it’s horribly arbitrarily ridiculous and painful, and it feels like to reflect reality you kind of have to… there’s a certain way to explore the world that can take all of that into account, and I think it involves bringing some of your own stories and your own self to it while still trying to honor the guest and the topic.
It’s almost like boxing, where you’re trying to get across a point without upending the guest. You’re sort of peppering. That’s what I’ve loved about it and tried to cultivate. I guess I can’t tell the next person what to do, but I think bringing your personality to it in a way that you wouldn’t in the evening news. I think the Buzz can hold more personality than other news shows at the station.
Something I’ve always felt is the tension between preparedness and improv. I think there’s a very important balancing act there. Now I have intros and outros that I’ll read and paraphrase, but I didn’t used to do that. And, I would always say, it’s really hard to listen to an interview where the guest reveals something unexpected. Whatever it is, if they reveal something, you have to follow-up on it. Sometimes if you write down too much of it, you prepare too much of it, you miss that. I’ve heard people do that over and over, where this [guest] offered up this golden path and [the host] didn’t pursue it.
On the other hand, if you’re too unprepared, that doesn’t work either. I’ve had interviews where I asked all the questions in the wrong order, because I’m finding out what the interview is while it’s happening. And sometimes I don’t figure out what the real interview is —or should be — until the end.
Improvisation often gets at that authenticity that I love so much. Because why not just read a news article on mic if you’re not going to be really live?
There should be a sense that it isn’t all planned, every step. The best way to do that is to actually be willing to go where it takes you, even if it’s dangerous, or it might not work.
Jonathan Zarov’s last day hosting the Friday Eight O’Clock Buzz is December 3, during the WORT Birthday Boost. It will be WORT’s 46th anniversary on the air— meaning Jonathan will have regularly hosted for approximately 60% of WORT’s lifespan as a community radio station.
This article has been corrected to reflect an anecdote regarding Lily Tomlin.