‘I Would Really Just Like Some Used Tennis Balls’: A Day at Anything You Ever Wanted to Know

Host Jeff Whittington, maybe preparing an answer about Hare Krishna temples or archaic zoning laws. Or cockatiels.

I’m trying to check off every item on D Magazine‘s “What You Must Do In Dallas” list. One of those is “Call in to KERA’s Anything You Ever Wanted to Know.” I decided to go to the studio instead, and sit in with host Jeff Whittington. Note: as for the list, I will not be getting fake boobs.

Jeff Whittington is sitting behind a KERA console, and he has a small but fixable problem. He needs to find a series of questions to lead off his show, Anything You Ever Wanted to Know, but only has a minute. There’s a stack of printed emails on the desk, some with Qs written on them, others with As. A fifteen-second Dave Brubeck intro fills the studio, then it’s his turn.

“We’re taking your questions…and answers!”

He settles on queries about first-time homeowner tax credits, the NFL’s tax-exempt status, and where a woman can get an old stove rewired. By the end of the hour we’ll have answers to all three. Critics say the show should’ve been made obsolete by the Internet, or, in some cases, even a phone book. But that’s not the point. Yes, a lot of these questions could be answered by opening a laptop. But many cannot.

How would you go about Googling “What’s that pink building off Columbia Avenue in East Dallas?” when what you’re actually wondering is “What’s that pink building off Gurley Avenue?” (The answer, Whittington says, is the Hare Krishna temple, and it has a great vegetarian restaurant.) How do you find someone to rewire a 60-year-old electric stove, when maybe the best person to rewire a stove doesn’t have a website? (This answer — “There’s a TV show where a guy restores all sorts of old things.” — is less than helpful, but still an answer.)

The point is that while the show’s a little hokey, and dated, the listening audience is a community. Before Twitter or Facebook or Vine, it was the original way to crowdsource an answer. Bill from Krum would call in with a question about selling a barnful of tires, and Lydia from Burleson would tell him about a salvage yard that would take them off his hands. A mother could call in and tell a quick story about teaching her daughter how to play tennis, tell the audience that she “would really just like some used tennis balls,” and maybe find out where she can snag some flat tennis balls.

Try searching “Dallas used tennis balls” right now. The only thing useful is a Craigslist post from December 12, and those balls are probably long gone. Still, there are times when the conversation goes off the rails.

“I leave the radio on in two rooms: one where the bird is, and one where the cat is,” a caller says. She then says she’s interested in trading or selling a cockatiel because, for nesting purposes, she “doesn’t need two male cockatiels.” Whittington shrugs and says “Well, we’ll see if we can get an answer for you.” Personally, I had never considered the need for even one male cockatiel, so this sales pitch obviously isn’t for me. I ask Whittington what happens if someone begins to meander, or the show — like it did last Friday — starts to shift into an on-air version of an ad-hoc bicycle flea market.

“I kind of have to be a little…”

“Discerning?”

“Yeah, that’s probably the right word.”

Whittington is smart, but most of all respectful. Like with Cockatiel Lady, he’ll never tell a caller that their question is pointless, or universally understood. He smiles when a strange question is raised – “I’m looking for a good, complete mahjong set.” — but never dismissive.

“We might have a discussion, but I’m hesitant to call anyone crazy,” he says.

Soon the hour has passed, and there’s a pile of printed questions filling a plastic USPS bin under the console. The show’s taking a break next week, Whittington reminds listeners, but it will be back in two weeks. Guess Cockatiel Lady’s going to have to find something else to play for her cat and bird.

Anything You Ever Wanted to Know runs on KERA 90.1 at noon every week. Except this week.