Taking radio on the road

By Rich Tupica

Lansing Community College’s WLNZ gives audiences the chance to see a live audio theater production

It’s been nearly 74 years since Orson Welles captivated listeners with the “War of the Worlds” radio show. The delivery was so convincing that some believed a violent Martian invasion was actually in progress.

That old-time radio format enchanted a bulk of the country throughout the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, thanks to legends like Jack Benny and Abbott & Costello. By the early 1960s that style disappeared from the airwaves, mainly due to the dawn of television and Top 40 music programming.

Even so, Dave Downing, WLNZ-FM station manager, said the radio play is still thriving.

“Audio theater is very much alive,” said Downing, who is a longtime enthusiast. “When you think of the popularity of audio books, those include sound effects — a lot of audio books have full-cast enactments. A lot of the things that were done for 1930s, 1940s radio are still being done for video games, television shows, and movies.”

WLNZ, Lansing Community College’s radio station, is known locally for producing an old-time radio show at Dart Auditorium each year during the Silver Bells in the City celebration.

The station hits the road monthly with the “WLNZ Radio Road Show,” which makes a stop Friday at the Michigan Theatre in Jackson. It will be broadcast online and over the airwaves.

The variety show format is performed in front of an audience and includes comedy sketches, musical performances and a new host each time. The Michigan Theatre performance features guest host Evan Pinsonnault from WLNS-TV and musical performer Joel Mabus, a Michigan folk veteran. Regulars include The Grand River Band (the “house band”), along with WLNZ on-air personalities like Jack Robbins.

“In radio you had to use your imagination to paint the pictures,” Downing said. “A lot of people don’t practice using that part of their imagination anymore. It’s really fascinating, and I guess that’s why it’s kept my interest for all these years.”

For those who prefer interactive experiences, this traveling radio show offers that — with a little help from the crew at the start of the event.

“We spend a few minutes kind of coaching the audience into how to react during a live radio show,” Downing said. “It’s kind of a lost art for most people. At one show we passed out sound effects. We had probably a couple dozen people do the sound effects of chickens in a barnyard.”

Karen Love, WLNZ’s program director and a regular at the road show performances, said getting out of the studio and broadcasting live in front of people has become a staple at the station.

“That outreach in the community really makes a difference,” Love said. “Typically, nobody sees us because we are located in a basement. We also do live concerts every Friday at the Sir Pizza Grand Caf in Old Town from noon until 1 p.m. That’s called the ‘Grand River Radio Diner.’”

So what’s next for WLNZ?

“I found the script for the radio version of ‘Wizard of Oz.’ I’m trying to see if I can put that together,” Downing said. “It was produced in the 1950s when they re-released the movie. They had Judy Garland on the original radio show.”

WLNZ Radio Road Show

7 p.m. Friday, June 15

Michigan Theatre

124 North Mechanic St., Jackson

$5 (show is suitable for all ages)