Television and radio producer Rhian Miller and her husband bought a house in Monte Rio 10 years ago. They still live and work in San Francisco, but they spend as much time as they can along the Russian River, and Miller has always been impressed by the rich (yet mostly hidden) cultural life that exists in each little river town.
“It’s so lovely, and there’s so much history. Every little town has its own live music with local bands, and there are writers and artists and book groups. There’s a really rich cultural life along the river that almost no one but the people who live there know about.”
Partially to share the riches of the river area and partially to give the towns the recognition she felt they deserved, Miller decided to showcase the river’s vibrant culture in a new radio series on KRCB, the North Bay’s public media station. She wrote and won a grant from the California Humanities, and Wonderland Radio was born.
(The show gets its name from an old sign near the Rio Theater, beckoning “Welcome to Monte Rio, Vacation Wonderland.”)
“Prairie Home Companion meets Amateur Radio Hour” is how the California Humanities website describes the show, and that seems about right.
Each show is focused on a single town along the river and features local musicians, artists, writers and characters from the lower Russian River area. The shows are recorded before a live audience at the Rio Theatre in Monte Rio. In addition, Miller and her team of volunteers produce three short video clips about each town, which get shown during the live show.
“It’s really two shows,” Miller said. “There’s the live show at the Rio Theater, then that gets edited down to create the radio program, Wonderland Radio, which airs on KRCB-FM 91.1 on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. about two weeks after the live show.”
“The live show is really fun,” Miller said. “It gets a very local crowd of people from the town that’s being featured. And we try to make it a real event—there’s a sidewalk community fair beforehand where non-profits from the town that’s being featured get to have tables. Then everyone goes into the theater for the live show.”
Wonderland Radio kicked off in May with a live program focused on Forestville. The show featured several Forestville characters, including two Forestville residents who were disco performers back in the day.
Local historian John Schubert talked about the early (and competing) Spanish and Russian settlement of the river. The video features looked at the history of the town’s Hollydale Club, Forestville Youth Park (which is a public park that has been managed and financed by a local non-profit since 1960), and a local animal group called PALS (Pets as Loving Support), which trains emotional support and service animals. (You can see the video clips and hear a podcast of the Forestville show at http://www.wonderlandradiohour.com.)
The next live show for Wonderland Radio is scheduled for July 28 and will feature stories from Rio Nido. Guests include historian and newspaper columnist Gaye LeBaron, the Slavyanka Russian Chorus, and Clare Harris, the 98-year-old owner of Johnson’s Beach, who will talk about his Rio Nido life.
All shows feature the dulcet tones of emcee Paul DuBray and stories from the River Ranger, a river raconteur who dresses like a cowboy but prefers to remain anonymous. DuBray, who runs the Rio Café behind the theater, is a well-known voice along the river. He’s a singer, an announcer for gay rodeo, and one of Wonderland Radio’s earliest supporters.
“One rainy winter day I stopped by the cafe and started talking to him about the idea, and he told me he’d been thinking about doing some kind of radio show there too,” Miller said. “That gave me the extra impetus I needed. He was my first partner in getting it in motion.”
“Please do not make this sound like I do it all by myself,” Miller said. “I have an amazing crew of volunteers, and their efforts are what make this show possible. And KRCB has been an invaluable partner. They’re not just putting their name on it,” she said, noting that the station lends volunteers and material support. She and her crew also do all their post-production work at the KRCB studios in Rohnert Park.
Miller and her crew plan to do four shows a year, working their way down the river to the sea over two years. She currently only has funding the first year, but hope (and grant proposals) spring eternal.
Like all producers, Miller is always looking for story ideas and guests for future episodes of Wonderland Radio. Got a great story idea for the show? You can reach her via the program’s website at http://www.wonderlandradiohour.com