Column: 15 years later, “A Way with Words” from San Diego still unites a world of listeners

Is this vacant room next to the kitchen called a “living room” or a “family room”? Is this scourge of our dental existence pronounced “car-mel” or “car-a-mel”? When an SDSU student says, “I was quietly lost in class today,” what does he mean? Curious teaching minds want to know.

That we are listening “A path with words” for room naming history, pronunciation decisions, or a vocabulary update in the halls of local universities, fans of this San Diego-based public radio show and podcast can all come together around two simple words:

To thank. You.

Thank you for answering our burning questions about language on the air. Please explain to each other. Thank you for explaining to us ourselves.

And in this time of relentless pandemic concern, political outbreaks and anything but polite rhetoric, thank you for reminding us that words must not tear us apart.

“(Listeners) say,” I’m so relieved to find a place where I can stretch my brain and feel like I’m learning something, but I don’t get a punch in the stomach every time I do. ‘listen,’ said Grant Barrett, who co-hosts and co-produces the show with Martha Barnette.

As she does on air, Barnette gave the right word at the right time.

“We’ve had so many people using the word ‘oasis’,” she said. “I was just looking at an email I got this morning from someone who said, ‘I’m addicted to your show. Learning and laughing, what’s not to like? ‘”

Since its first broadcast on KPBS-FM in 1998, with Richard Lederer and Charles Harrington Elster as hosts, “A Way with Words” has been the perfect place for families for lively conversations about slang, hilarious family sayings and deep linguistic dives. will never find online.

The range has changed over the years. Barnette joined the series when Elster left in 2004, and Barrett came on board when Lederer left in 2006.

The program got a new foundation in 2007, when KPBS stopped producing it due to budget cuts, and Barnette, Barrett and lead producer Stefanie Levine formed an independent company to fund and produce it themselves. This company is now a not-for-profit corporation called Wayword, Inc.

As “A Way with Words” enters its 15th year of independence, the weekly show is bigger than ever. It can be heard on radio stations in 42 states, as well as stations in Canada and Mexico. The podcast version has been downloaded over 5 million times in the past year.

Thanks to podcasting and the Internet, the program developed in San Diego is now comforting word lovers around the world. But as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, “A Way with Words” continues to take the local concept to a whole new level.

For her part of the “A Way with Words” radio show, Martha Barnette records in a clothes closet, sometimes supervised by one (or more) of her four cats.

(Courtesy photo by Bonnie Benitez)

In early 2020, the show was recorded at Studio West in Rancho Bernardo. As of April 2020, however, “A Way with Words” has been produced and recorded from Barrett and Barnette’s respective homes in City Heights, Levine’s home in Mission Hills, and the home of engineer / publisher Tim Felten in Lemon Grove. .

Barnette records from her closet, surrounded by pre-pandemic clothing that she no longer wears and occasionally supervised by one (or more) of her four cats. Barrett records from a lawn chair surrounded by a noise-canceling fortress made up of bookcases, moving boxes full of books, moving blankets, and something called “bulk loaded vinyl.”

“That’s what it takes. All of our colleagues are doing the same, ”Barrett said. “Other people are having so much difficulty, and we are so fortunate to be able to do our work from home and provide this entertainment as we all go through this difficult time. It is certainly not enough to compensate, but we hope to gain the advantage. “

With the help of Zoom and Google Chat, Barrett and Barnette are able to talk about a new translation of “Beowulf”, think about what a group of black holes might be called, and answer the question of a caller on the correct pronunciation of “buoy” with their usual warmth and enthusiasm. Probably because they still feel their usual warmth and enthusiasm, along with a few other things.

“I wake up every day grateful that we can do what we’re doing,” Barnette said. “The listeners really supported us. There is so much encouragement, so much support and so much curiosity.

With 15 independent years on the books, the co-hosts have high hopes for the next chapter of “A Way with Words”. They would love to make a bilingual version that explores the fascinating twists and turns of the Spanish language. They can’t wait to get back to a live show on the road.

Barnette and Barrett have no idea how long they’ll be recording in cupboards and producing from lawn chairs, but they also know that doesn’t really matter. Words and lovers of the world haven’t yet failed them, and what’s not to love about it?

“What’s cool is there’s an endless supply of gear,” Barnette said. “You would think that after 15 years we would run out of things to talk about. But we are only just getting started.

“A Way with Words” airs locally on KPBS 89.5 FM. The podcast is available on Apple, Spotify, and other platforms. You can also listen on the show’s website,

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