When sisters link up by satellite

Five siblings are garnering a large radio audience by chatting about life experiences

Gabbing comes naturally to the five Dolan sisters.

Having yakked to one another since childhood about every aspect of their lives, they've honed the ability to communicate easily, regardless of the subject.

It's a handy skill at parties.

But a couple of years ago, they decided they might be able to apply their talent for talk to a more creative and useful endeavor: a radio show, one in which friends and listeners could also share their experiences - just like real conversation.

That idea - which Liz Dolan calls "original, but incredibly obvious" - has become "Satellite Sisters," one of the hottest new shows on public radio. Since debuting April 1 in four cities and launching nationally in June, it has been picked up in 36 markets and will soon add several more.

"With five sisters, there's always the right mix of people to get in on a conversation," says executive producer Marjorie Kalin. They already relate to one another, she notes, "and are funny and intelligent and are [interested] about life."

Sure, talk radio has been around since not long after commercial broadcasting started in 1920. But most of it has centered on arguing, advice, or analysis, driven by listener calls or news events. No one had tried the simple concept of a group of people conversing about their experiences and inviting others to join in - without judgment or declarations of who's right and who's wrong.

And certainly, no one had considered placing five women on the air together - five sisters separated by 10 years (they're 35 to 45), four states, and two continents, linked by hardware orbiting in space.

But in this usage, "satellite" also represents something else: a core of people pulling others into a circle, who then draw in others, and so on, building an ever-widening wheel of "sisters."

One hour a week, Liz, Monica, Sheila, Julie, and Lian discuss details about their lives, from mundane to momentous, silly to serious. They also share insights and abundant humor, and draw existing and new friends into these breakfast-table-type chats.

On their show, no callers are cut off by nasty hosts, no political debates rage, no holier-than-thou advice is given - there aren't even "Car Talk"-type puzzlers or "Whad'ya Know"-style quiz questions, unless one counts the segment in which they pondered what would be better: winning a Nobel Prize or an Oscar. (The answers basically weigh the satisfaction of benefiting mankind against getting better tables at restaurants.)

There aren't even any arguments - a feat in itself for many siblings.

"It's easy to find comedy in dysfunction," says Liz, who conceived the show after deciding that being Nike's global vice president of marketing - one of the highest-ranked females in corporate America - simply wasn't fulfilling.

"We're attempting to do something that might be harder, which is trying to find the comedy in function," she says.

"It's about exploring how people navigate their lives," adds producer Kalin.

"We wanted to elevate everyday conversation to a place of importance," says youngest sister Lian, a scriptwriter and producer now raising two pre-schoolers in Pasadena, Calif.

Liz says she believed there might be potential in an informal program involving real, nonjudgmental conversation among people who genuinely like each other.

"And then," she adds, "it was a very short hop to 'Well, that would be my sisters.' "

Radio offered another advantage - no one had to relocate.

Liz splits her time between Manhattan and Portland, Ore., where Monica, a nurse turned medical researcher, also lives. Sheila is a divorced mom running a New York public school; oldest sibling Julie recently moved her family to Bangkok so her husband could take one of those nebulous, quasi-governmental jobs. (There are also three brothers, but they weren't included because, Liz explains, sisterly bonds are different. And they never helped during the daily dishwashing sessions that cemented those bonds! On the show, male guests who qualify receive "Satellite Mister" status; women join the "Satellite Sisters" sorority.)

The show is produced in a limited for-profit partnership between public station WNYC-FM in New York and the sisters' Mudbath Productions. Segments are recorded with no more than two sisters in any one studio. They discuss the topics beforehand, but the shows are unscripted, partly to maintain spontaneity. Interviews are planned, but, Lian says, "We start with the person and then try to find the subject matter."

Listeners contribute via phone or e-mail; www.satellitesisters.com is an active component of the show, which is also available online and on tape.

"People have told us about everything from being an organ donor … to taking time out of your life to bake a pie," Liz says. "We don't want to be put in the position where people expect us to give them advice, but we'll bat anything around.... This is the way friends really deal with each other."

The show, she adds, "isn't just [about] being literal sisters; it's about who is your network of people around you, your friends and supporters.… Men and women seem to instantly get that; they understand we are talking about the group of people you turn to for anything in your life that you want to laugh or cry about."

For many radio listeners, that now includes their "Satellite Sisters."

To find station listings look under www.satellitesisters.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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