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Radio stars play on bigger stage

NPR's 'Wait Wait Don't Tell Me' hits theaters May 2

What does a radio show look like on a big screen? Many more listeners of National Public Radio’s irreverent quiz show “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” will be able to find out when the live show hits 600 movie theaters for the first time on May 2.

Public radio personalities are increasingly expanding their reach through live shows and filmed versions of the live shows, giving their extremely loyal listener fanbases a more personal — and more visual — connection.

WNYC’s “Radio Lab” capitalized on its nearly 3 million listerners with a live show last year, while WBEZ/PRI’s “This American Life,” American Public Media’s “Prairie Home Companion” and Chicago Public Radio/NPR’s “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” do both live tours as well as playing in hundreds of theaters. The one-night live movie screenings are handled by Fathom, which brings events including concerts, documentaries and lectures to theaters, helping fill theaters on slower weeknights.

Fathom Events senior VP Dan Diamond said the live public radio shows grew out of the company’s 7-year association with the Metropolitan Opera, which already had an NPR connection. By Experience executes the production end of broadcasting the live events, while Fathom handles distribution.

“We’ve been able to find key programs with large fan interest, that have visually interesting elements,” said Diamond.

These elements can range from fiddle player Sara Watkins performing in the “Prairie Home Companion” show, or “This American Life” audience members playing along with the band OK Go on a phone app.

“The performances keep the feel of what happens on the radio and bring it to life,” Diamond said.

According to Fathom, tour sales often rise when moviegoers spread the word about the films. To get the word out, the radio shows themselves promo the movie events in the 150 or so markets the films play in, and Fathom also makes extensive use of its First Look pre-movie shows in theaters to tout upcoming content.

“Their listeners are loyal, avid followers, many from generation to generation,” said Diamond of the public radio aud.

It’s an audience that’s not only willing to donate millions of dollars a year to keep their favorite stations on the air, but also to pay $20 or more for movie tickets to shows like “Wait Wait.”

Fans consider it a good value. “They’re one-time opportunities,” Diamond explained.

Contact Pat Saperstein at pat.saperstein@variety.com

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