Spirit Song Radio Spreads the Joy of Radio Shows

by | Jun 2024

Spirit Song Live Radio Show

Photos: Chris Emeott

Actors, musicians and writers produce an old-time radio show that brings audiences together with laughter and song.

“Welcome to Spirit Song Radio, where the music is ringin’ and our listeners are singin’!” That cheerful greeting opens each episode of Spirit Song Radio, a Woodbury-based production with deep roots in the community—and a mission to connect people, using stories and music in a modern world where isolation is a real danger.

The radio show is a production of Woodbury’s Spirit Song Choir, an ecumenical group that includes almost 100 volunteer musicians and was the 2019 brainchild of now-retired church music director Mary Vaaler Reimann. “We wanted a place where people from all traditions could get together and sing and bring music to community events and senior homes,” Vaaler Reimann says. “We came up with a list of possible members over the first weekend, and by that Monday, we had 65 people who said, ‘Yes.’”

Spirit Song Choir grew quickly and was soon holding weekly practices at St. Therese of Woodbury. Then, in spring 2020, COVID-19 upended everything. “Singing, in particular, was treacherous with the virus,” Vaaler Reimann says. “My sister suggested that we try getting the choir together over Zoom.”

Even though Zoom rehearsals weren’t the same as in-person singalongs, “They really helped us reduce that isolation and grow as a community,” Vaaler Reimann says. The choir made virtual recordings of several songs and reached out to local senior living communities where they had started to hold prepandemic singalongs. How could they help elderly residents—the most isolated demographic during the early months of the pandemic—find some joy and a sense of normalcy?

Spirit Song Live Audience Singing

Inspiration soon struck. Renee Vaughan, who was, at the time, the life enrichment director at Stonecrest senior living community, had started using radio as a way to connect her residents. “My husband had a short-wave radio transmitter,” Vaughan says. “We asked local churches to donate small transistor radios for residents, and our in-house radio station was launched.”

Vaughan and her team used their Stonecrest radio station to broadcast bingo calls, a morning show, trivia and more. She wondered if the Spirit Song Choir could send a few members to the lobby for a broadcast singalong, but that seemed risky. How about a prerecorded, virtual singalong? “Someone said, ‘That sounds really boring,’” Vaaler Reimann remembers with a laugh. Then a choir member hit upon the golden idea: An old-time radio show, complete with stock characters, funny storylines and sound effects. Spirit Song Radio was born.

Vaaler Reimann quickly gathered her troops—a handful of choir members and various family members and friends who could lend audio engineering or writing talents. One of those folks who would prove indispensable was newcomer Ann Kysely who had moved to Minnesota right before the pandemic struck and most recently moved to Woodbury. “I met all of these people via Zoom, and we started collaborating,” says Kysely, a former theater director who became the show’s scriptwriter.

Tom Vaaler and Ann Kysely

Tom Vaaler and Ann Kysely

She and the team created a lovable cast of characters, including Cliff the Mailman, Lucy the Landscaper and many others. Each episode features a story and plenty of songs, from old-time hits to familiar hymns.

A key player in Spirit Song Radio is Tom Vaaler, a longtime member of the choir (and Vaaler Reimann’s dad). “I reached way back to the 1950s,” Vaaler says. “I worked in radio at the time as a college student and did this kind of stuff—wrote scripts and did the news.” Vaaler tapped into his experiences from the heyday of radio (plus his solid acting background) to help fine-tune the productions. He and Kysely developed a warm banter as the show’s co-hosts. “One of the best parts of radio is that I get to hold a script. And most of the time, I even use it,” Vaaler jokes.

“As long as I keep my finger on it for him!” Kysely retorts.

Spirit Song Radio episodes were soon being broadcast at Stonecrest and at other senior living communities, both locally and around the state. Kathy Dunleavy, campus director of community life at Woodbury Senior Living, says the show was priceless to lonely residents. “It was something so familiar to them—it brought the past to the present,” Dunleavy says.

When pandemic restrictions finally eased and groups were gathering again, what would happen to Spirit Song Radio? “Do we just retire it?” Vaaler Reimann wondered. “Is there a different way we could share it?” In fall 2022, the radio show team began hosting live productions—the best of both worlds. “We provide lyric sheets to the audience, so they can sing along, and have fun signs that say, ‘Applause,’ ‘Laugh’ and ‘Groan,’” Vaaler Reimann says.

Audience cue cards are just one part that makes Spirit Song Radio Live productions so lively.

Audience cue cards are just one part that makes Spirit Song Radio Live productions so lively.

With Spirit Song Radio Live, the audiences—mostly at local senior living homes—can watch the production of the show, where cast members (though mostly seated at a table) wear recognizable accessories and invite participation through song and laughter. “It’s a whole lot better than when we were doing it over Zoom,” Vaaler says. “You can look out and see them giggling.”

“We have so much joy with every performance,” Kysely says. “We can hear them singing with us.”

After a successful Spirit Song Radio Live performance at Ojibway Park last summer, the troupe is planning another Community Sing Along at 6:30 p.m. June 25 as part of the city’s summer concert series. Listeners can also find all 36 episodes of the radio show to stream online at spiritsongchoir.org. You’ll almost certainly find yourself laughing—and singing—right along.

On The Air Sign

And when the show comes to a close, you’ll hear familiar voices wrapping things up:

“I’m Tom V …”

“And I’m Annie K …”

“And we hope you have a wonderful day!”


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