Great Northern Radio Show brings Duluth-centric performance to town

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For the past five years, a traveling troupe of outstate Minnesotans has visited towns in northern Minnesota to create a quarterly radio show that speaks to each region’s individual ticks and lovable quirks.

There was a do-si-do in a barn in McGregor.

In Walker, special guests included Norm and Judy — who were among the 100-plus relatives gathered for their annual holiday reunion at Northern Lights Casino.

And in Cook County, Arctic explorer Lonnie Dupre gave a shout-out to the sauna at Grand Marais’ YMCA.

Now, for the first time, the “A Prairie Home Companion”-esque variety show created by writer-teacher-humorist-host Aaron Brown is bringing its seagull jokes, shipping news and Bob Dylan trivia to Duluth. The Great Northern Radio Show plays at 5 p.m. Saturday at Lincoln Park Middle School. The two hourlong episodes will be broadcast live on KUMD-FM 103.3 and recorded for future broadcast on public radio stations around Minnesota.

There will be music by the ska band Woodblind, accordion-rich Dance Attic, folk duo The Lowest Pair and special guests Duluth mayor Emily Larson, author-judge Mark Munger and egg farmer/literary nonfiction writer Lucie Amundsen.

The show’s format includes monologues by Brown, sketch comedy, music and interviews with locals.

“We try to celebrate (a town) the way the locals do it,” he said. “What makes them laugh about (themselves). It sounds hopelessly earnest. We do have an edge to us. We put ourselves in a position to tell the jokes that only locals can tell.”

In the past, the program has stuck to places within listening range of its home-base radio stations KAXE and KBXE-FM.

“We’re building up places and people that aren’t really getting a lot of attention,” said Brown. “Duluth feels like, to me, it’s developed its own cultural status. There’s a music scene, theater scene … it’s doing good on its own.”

Still, he has wanted to play the Twin Ports. It’s where the Iron Range native did his back-to-school shopping as a kid, he said, and it’s where he graduated — from the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

“There’s so much about Duluth: the history, the culture. It’s got stories and places and subgroups of people,” he said. “We finally worked it out so we come make a live event.”

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Creating a show

Five years ago, Brown was at a crossroads, he said. He was recovering from alcoholism and wanted to do something important and family-friendly that would keep him busy. Around the same time, Northern Community Radio was looking to add cultural programming, he said.

“Great Northern Radio Show” was born.

“It required me to be sharp and open-minded and to work with people and keep me in touch with people,” Brown said. “It was really important to do something.”

He took the traditional variety show format and then added regional flavor.

“We’re talking about northern Minnesota and how people really are,” he said. “The unexpected parts of the community. The parts that don’t hit the stereotypes. If ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ and Lake Wobegon is fiction about Minnesota, we’re creative nonfiction about northern Minnesota. The sketches are fictional, but it’s suitably wacky.”

The show has drawn comparisons to the Garrison Keillor creation, but Brown said he was never angling for Keillor’s gig. He does, however, want his time slot, Brown said.

“It would have been great if ol’ Gary had called and asked if I wanted to host ‘Prairie Home,’ ” Brown said with a laugh. “When Keillor announced Chris Thile (as new host), he specifically said: ‘We wouldn’t want some storyteller from the Upper Midwest who had this background in broadcasting.’”

The first episode of “Great Northern Radio Show,” titled “Hard Times, Good Times,” was recorded at Hibbing Community College in October 2011. At the time, Brown envisioned touring the program around northern Minnesota — but he was taking it one episode at a time.

“Honest to God, we didn’t know what would happen,” he said. “I didn’t know if I’d like it. It had its rough patches. On the whole, it went remarkably well.”

Headless sheep

Along the way, the players have learned a few things, like how long a sketch can run before it gets tedious for the home-listener and the variety of music. And now that they’re more established, they’ve been drawing bigger names, Brown said.

Actor Jason Scorich, a regular in Duluth Playhouse productions, has been a part of the show for the past two years as an actor and occasional writer. He’s always enjoyed radio theater, he said, and being a part of it is a change from the rehearsal schedule required by traditional theater.

“You just show up at 8:30 in the morning and, by 5 o’clock, you’re putting on a show,” he said. “I actually love it. I don’t have to think about it. You know it’s going to happen. I can just go in and have fun.”

There have been times when Scorich has had to play a character talking to a character also played by him.

Live radio theater reminds Brown of the time he was at a production with a group of children. The dressing room door swung open, and they all saw a sheep without a head, unzipping its sheep suit.

“All the kids were like ‘That sheep had no head!’ ” Brown said. “The whole illusion came pouring down. That’s the kind of experience we provide. You’re watching us frantically figure out we’re out of time, we need to cut a minute off a song. You get that with the live experience.”

If you go

What: “Great Northern Radio Show”

When: 5-7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Lincoln Park Middle School Auditorium

Tickets: $10 adults, free for children and college students with ID

On air: Live on KUMD-FM 103.3, KAXE-FM 91.7 and KBXE-FM 90.5

Written by Christa Lawler for the Duluth News Tribune.

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