July 29, 2023

My NPR Sunday Puzzle "Appearance"

Behind the scenes

Since 2013, I've been writing computer programs to solve the weekly NPR Sunday Puzzle challenges, partly because I think it's great fun, but also partly because I held hope (however dim) of getting on NPR to play the Sunday Puzzle. In my 2018 talk on using the Clojure computer programming language to solve the NPR Sunday Puzzle, I assess my hopes succinctly: "Maybe someday."

"Someday" for me was May 11, 2023, when at the end of my workday I received a phone call from Gabriel, a producer with National Public Radio. Gabriel informed me that I had been chosen to play the NPR Sunday Puzzle for that week, and to be available for an over-the-phone recording the next day, Friday, May 12, 2023, which would be broadcast that Sunday, May 14, 2023.

My going assuption was that they would record on a Thursday to air that following Sunday, but with an extra day in hand, I took some time on Thursday night to figure out what I would want to say. This could well be, as a friend of mine later pointed out, the only chance I would ever have to be on the NPR Sunday Puzzle, so I should try to make it count. You can see my notes which you can find at the top of this post; I also used the same paper to take notes during the puzzle to help me solve.

We were on the phone for about 20 minutes, and among the topics we discussed:

  • The weather in Chicago (where I am based), in Washington DC (where show host Ayesha Roscoe was based), and in New York state (where NPR Puzzlemaster Will Shortz was based).

  • The use of computer programs to solve the puzzle, as I did to solve that week's puzzle, and a very simplified explanation of how I did that.

  • A shout out to London, which is where I was going to a conference in June 2023.

  • A shout out to Bob McChesney, in my estimation the world's premiere media scholar, a big inspiration for my own activism, and a friend. Bob used to host a radio program called Media Matters (not to be confused with a media-themed organization with a similar name). It was through Bob's show that I became acquainted with both the NPR Sunday Puzzle and the radio station I mentioned, WILL-AM.

  • A three-minute-long seminar where I coach Ayesha Roscoe on how to pronounce my last name.

It made for a fascinating discussion, and all of the above content was cut from what made it to the actual show for broadcast, which was just six minutes long and which you can hear here.

In the months after the puzzle, I was showered with gifts:

and the vaunted NPR Weekend Edition lapel pin:

The pin is what you want. Everything else you can buy, but the pin you have to earn.

Another nice and unexpected gift: a boost in my Google ranking. While the NPR mothership website hosts the Sunday Puzzle, many NPR affiliate stations have their own websites and resyndicate content from NPR on those websites, including episodes of the NPR Sunday Puzzle. That meant that hundreds of NPR station websites also mentioned my name, thus increasing the number of appearances of my name on the internet.

Since my "appearance" on NPR, I still listen and I still solve the puzzle. I plan to give a talk about the computer program I wrote to solve the puzzle that got me on NPR. I may get to play the NPR Sunday Puzzle again (unlike most game shows, NPR doesn't restrict you from making multiple appearances) -- but given the odds against any appearance, I wouldn't count on it. Even so, being on was a great joy and I very much appreciated the opportunity.