The "on air" light illuminates and a hush falls over the 150 people packed into the small auditorium. Warm light bathes the announcer. "Ladies and gentleman, children of all ages," his voices booms by way of quick welcome. He then tosses attention to Stella, an a cappella ensemble circled around a single microphone. "If you want to give your heart a perfect thrill, sir/ Spend an evening in Caroline," they sing. It could be a night in 1930, a family snuggled up listening to a crackling radio, but it doesn't take a time machine to enjoy the Murphey School Radio Show.
The show, billed as a "Celebration of Triangle Wit, Lit and Music," is a classic play on the old-time variety hour. Local writers and performers infuse the script with Prairie Home Companion-style charm to raise funds for area nonprofits.
Their Nov. 3 event will benefit Project Compassion and A Helping Hand, two agencies serving the seriously ill and the elderly. Featuring writers Judy Goldman and Scott Huler, players from the Transactors Improv Company, and musicians Robert Griffin, Jennifer Evans, Jay Cartwright and Randa McNamara, the show offers a multimedia platform to raise funds and awareness—and to have fun.
"It's like artistic barn raising," says Julie Mooney of Stella, which will also perform. "It just has this wonderful feel of everybody pitching in and bringing their best."
The program is the flagship event for Shared Visions, a foundation based at the Murphey School in Durham. The organization promotes cooperation among local nonprofits.
"We've just been having a great time playing show business," acknowledges producer Donna Campbell of Minnow Media. Campbell and business partner Georgann Eubanks have been working with Shared Visions principals Jay Miller and Ebeth Scott-Sinclair since the brainstorming phase. Inspired by the historic school, which operated from 1923 to 1959 (the auditorium was built in 1936), the group quickly decided on the broadcast format in front of a live audience. More important, they resolved to donate each episode's revenue to two charities, one each for Durham and Orange counties.
With featured guests such as writers Jill McCorkle, Bland Simpson and Daniel Wallace, the inaugural show in February 2011 raised more than $10,000 for agencies serving people with mental illness. A second episode with author and playwright Lee Smith, writer DG Martin and WUNC's Frank Stasio last November sold out, bringing in more than $14,000 for systems that aid the homeless.
"The stuff we do is not easy to summarize, that's for sure," says Steven Warnock, executive director of Project Compassion, which will receive a portion of the upcoming program's proceeds. Since 2000, the group has offered community and support for people who are living with, or caring for, someone with serious illness or dealing with end-of-life issues.
"We're always very focused on the medical side of things when we get sick and that's important," explains Warnock. "But that quickly goes from days and weeks to months and years and the parts of our lives that get forgotten revolve around our friends and our community."
Similarly, A Helping Hand provides nonmedical care to promote independence and quality of life for the elderly. "We provide companion care, escorted transportation, help with meal preparation, light housekeeping," explains Executive Director Cathy Ahrendsen.
A Helping Hand also assists family caregivers who need a weekly respite from the intense care their loved ones require. "The radio program will allow us to raise funds to support those who are unable to pay for services. At this time, 40 percent of the clients we're serving depend on donations to receive transportation to out-patient procedures and routine medical appointments," Ahrendsen adds.
The performers and organizers understand the significance of the nonprofits' work, and they embrace the entertainment aspect of the radio show. "With the topic that we work with a lot around here—death and illness and things that seem so sad—I know that humor is a huge piece to living," says Warnock, who will perform in the Transactors ensemble. "I think it's important for people to just know that there is some fun that can be had in each and every day."
For Campbell, the setting in the Murphey School epitomizes the community at work: "Coming together in that old auditorium, sitting together there up close and personal with these wonderful musicians and these wonderful writers just sharing their hearts with us, something really happens," she says. "Our humanity is just so evident and our shared sense of our community. People cry; they just feel it. They feel this experience and it's just a little couple hours together."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Radio on."