For longtime fans, it will come as no surprise that our community’s beloved Village Books is set to mark the eighth anniversary of its Chuckanut Radio Hour, Bellingham’s very own radio variety show, which began in January 2007.
For the rest? It’s time to learn about this adored local program, and then join in the celebration, while looking ahead to many more.
The Chuckanut Radio Hour gets compared to A Prairie Home Companion, but in truth, it’s uniquely Bellingham. It points its microphones at guest authors, poets and musicians – both local and national. Guests have included Garth Stein, Elizabeth George, Tom Robbins, Cheryl Strayed, Sherman Alexie, Jodi Picoult, Ann Rule, and so many more.
Local columnist Alan Rhodes has shared his essays since episode one, and the Chuckanut Radio Players were also there at the start, entertaining with sketches.
A few shows into its run, the Chuckanut Radio Players introduced “The Bellingham Bean,” a serial whose characters amusingly play out a tale set in a Bellingham coffee shop and bakery.
Shelley Muzzy plays Polly Bean alongside her husband Robert, who embodies Polly’s brother Michael Bean. These days, Shelley writes the serial’s scripts.
“For a stretch of time, she and Alan wrote it together,” says Chuck, “and occasionally, Les Campbell has helped.” (Campbell most often plays Chester Ballou, but fills in with other characters.)
But back to how it all began.
“I was interested,” says Chuck, who’d had an idea bouncing around in his head for a while. “Some friends of ours own the terrific Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, and they’d been doing a radio variety program. I was very intrigued.”
Chuck and Phil decided to work together on the project and perform it with a small crew – including Village Books co-owner and Chuck’s wife Dee Robinson, announcer Rich Donnelly, the Muzzys, Rhodes, and McKay – at downtown’s American Museum of Radio and Electricity (now the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention). They planned to launch it the following spring or summer.
But a week later Chuck discovered the store had already booked Seattle author Erik Larson to come read from his new novel, “Thunderstruck,” in January. That book happened to include the real-life character Guglielmo Marconi, creator of the wireless.
“Turns out, the radio museum downtown has many pieces from Marconi’s lab,” Chuck says with a laugh. “We thought, well, this is too good to pass up!”
So the ball began rolling much faster than anticipated for the first ever Chuckanut Radio Hour. Chuck confirmed Larson as a guest and the date was set for the inaugural show on January 10.
“Now we have to put a show together in less than two months, and we’ve never done one!” Chuck says. (Spoiler alert: They totally pulled it off.)
As he unravels the yarn about the Chuckanut Radio Hour’s origins, Chuck begins to dig through a pile of old notebooks.
“Son of a gun, I may have the old scripts here,” he says. “Yup, January 10th. Ha! This is funny. I forgot I had all these old notebooks.”
He scans the very first Chuckanut Radio Hour script, sharing highlights.
“We started out the show with a little bit of chit chat, and we had The Honeybees on, a musical group like the Andrews Sisters,” Chuck says. “It’s their little clip that we do at the beginning of every show, when they sing, ‘The Chuckanut Radio Hour.’”
James Bertolini was the first poet on Poet’s Corner; he would return several times. Alan read an essay, and after the show’s conclusion was asked to become a regular.
Also at that first taping was popular local group The Walrus, who for a two-year stint became the program’s house band. They’ve been back over the years and will perform at the 8th anniversary show.
“We have guest musicians for every show,” says Chuck, bringing things back to the present. “There’s so much talent in this town. There’s a young woman named Sarah Goodin who’s been on the show three times. She’s terrific and such a sweetheart.”
Music, performance, and discussion have always intertwined on the program.
The Poet’s Corner evolved from showcasing a variety of local poets to shining its spotlight solely on program regular Kevin Murphy. “He’s a fantastic performance poet,” Chuck says.
Floyd McKay, an on-air newsperson for years with the KING-5 affiliate in Portland, has conducted the author interviews since the first show – though Chuck, Dee, and Rich have taken on the task here and there.
Being an extension of a bookstore that hosts hundreds of author events each year, The Chuckanut Radio Hour never lacks for interview subjects. William Deitrich holds the record for guesting most often – six or seven times.
The Chuckanut Radio Hour eventually outgrew its original location at the museum’s radio station and its second home at the Leopold’s Crystal Ballroom.
In 2013, the show moved to Whatcom Community College’s Heiner Theater and WCC became a sponsor.
“We’ve had people from their faculty perform music and students work as interns for the show,” Chuck says of the partnership. “We hope to expand that.”
When Garrison Keillor was a guest, in 2008, the show took place at Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center and played to an audience of a thousand.
Chuck calls the WCC auditorium the show’s “permanent home,” and says it’s been a long time since a performance didn’t pull in more than 100 people.
The finished product that listeners hear is not broadcast live. “It all gets a bit of editing and goes to KMRE and gets played there,” Chuck says.
When the show first began, Chuck wrote the scripts, and then Phil’s wife Leslie Clark took over. Leslie has also been a producer of the program, as has Jeff Bender, another writer for the show.
“Now we’re doing it without a specific producer,” says Chuck, who has always executive produced.
“It’s less work than it used to be,” he says. “Five of us brainstorm what the theme should be for each show. The bridge pieces are only a minute long, so it’s a little bit of transition work and some introduction to the next part, and some bad jokes. That’s it.”
He makes what he and the team do sound simple, but what they’ve accomplished certainly is not. With 83 episodes under their belt, they’ve been entertaining listeners every month for eight solid years now.
Ticket sales – everything beyond the hard costs of doing the show – go into a charitable account. “We’ve done things for Whatcom Community College, raised money for Sustainable Connections, and many other local nonprofit organizations,” says Chuck.
“Our audience skews a little gray,” he admits, laughing. “I guess part of the reason for that is we’re old enough to remember radio variety shows and television variety shows – most of which are gone.”
Dee has retired from working at the bookstore, but she’s not about to give up her role as Aunt Suzette with The Chuckanut Radio Players.
“She hasn’t retired from the Radio Hour,” says Chuck, letting out a big laugh. “She always tells people: ‘That’s not work, that’s fun.’”
The 8th anniversary performance of the Chuckanut Radio Hour takes place Thursday, January 22 at 6:30 p.m. at Whatcom Community College’s Heiner Theater. Tickets are $5 and are available at Village Books and BrownPaperTickets.com. Co-sponsored by Whatcom Community College Foundation, 12th Street Shoes, and Westside Pizza.