By Dale McGarrigle, Of the Bangor Daily News Staff
For the past 25 years, Annie Earhart has been an artist who expresses herself through radio, music serving as her palette and the airways as her canvas. For much of that time, she worked at commercial radio stations in Connecticut and Maine. But such stations became more regimented and formatted, and Earhart doesn't fit into this new world.
"When I started in radio in 1974, the DJs were the programmers," Earhart explained in the dining room of her 2-year-old Solon home. "There was a creative interplay between the DJ and the people listening, and I loved that. But that doesn't exist anymore in commercial radio. I've seen it all slip away. If you're into the music, that's not the place to be anymore."
Earhart (real name Donna Kelly Gray) is making a new home for herself in community radio. She has created the variety show "The General Store," which airs 1 p.m. Sundays on WERU (89.9 and 102.2 FM). The program is repeated five times weekly on the Web site Thepublicradiostation.com and at 6 p.m. Monday on WMHB (89.7 FM) in Waterville. The show premiered on WERU March 19 and on the Internet a month later. Her goal is to create a "Northern Exposure" for radio. Playing herself, Earhart minds the general store in the small rural town of Angel's Notch while spinning tunes for those who come in, be they neighbor or deity. "It's a mythological town, like Cicely, Alaska, where magical things happen," said Earhart, her reddish-brown hair up in pigtails.
"I love it, because I can take it anywhere." Each show has a theme, and includes a serial involving the residents of Angel's Notch. Another segment has Annie interviewing a visitor with a story or a mythological figure. One week, a visitor discusses the significance of the shawl. Another week finds Thor, the Norse god of thunder, discussing his specialty. Listeners can never be sure who's going to walk into "The General Store" next.
Tying it all together is lots and lots of music, from the '20s through the '90s, all drawn from the shelves of records and CDs that line the walls of Earhart's home. Characters request songs, making the segues seamless. In addition to being a radio personality, Earhart also is a performer. She and her scientist husband, Andrew Wendell, are the acoustic duo Annie and Andy. She's also a founding member of the Twatones, a campy a cappella group which gets decked out in '50s gowns, rhinestones and sunglasses. She's also a member of the In Spite of Life Players, who stage the annual Fourth of July extravaganza in Athens. On this day, she's just finishing up painting her colorful "Four Seasons Bear" for the Belfast Bearfest. And her new show draws on all these abilities.
The cast of "The General Store" is drawn from Earhart's radio colleagues, neighbors and friends. "There's a tremendous pool to draw from, and they're all tremendously kind, doing this for free," she said. Taping for the show takes place every few days around a homey-looking card table in the basement of Earhart's home. Wendell then edits it together on their home computer. On a wall over the dining-room table is a complete list of shows and contents. They generally deliver shows about a week ahead of broadcast.
Earhart, a 1969 Boston University graduate in advertising design and photography, found her calling in 1973, when she heard a DJ play an afternoon of songs featuring cowbells. "I loved seeing the creativity of the person on the air, and the freedom, because you could respond to the audience," she recalled. Earhart honed her craft at Connecticut college stations WHUS and WWUH, then landed the afternoon-drive slot at WHCN in Hartford, Conn., in 1976. In 1977, she moved to WBLM, then just a trailer on a hilltop in Sabattus. "I left a wonderful job at WHCN," she said. "But that was when the consultants came in and started to format and restrict. WBLM gave the DJs freedom, and that's what I'm good at. I wanted to be spontaneous, mix the music and make it sound good."
Local listeners probably best remember Earhart during her time at WTOS (105.1) FM, doing afternoon drive from 1979 to 1985 and weekends 1986 to 1992. Since then, she worked at a variety of broadcasting jobs until the WERU gig came along. She's also still a volunteer at WMHB FM, the Colby College station.
Also, in the late '70s, Earhart hosted a syndicated astrology program, "As Above, So Below," which aired in Boston, Hartford, Conn., New Haven, Conn., and Portland. This is evidence of the other part of her life. She's been an astrologer for 25 years, and a metaphysical teacher for 10 years, introducing people to their spirit guides. She co-authored the metaphysical book "The Dawn Book" a decade ago. She's now writing a second book, the life story of Darci Stillwater, her spiritual guide, which begins with his death in 1831.
She's also continuing to refine the offerings at "The General Store."
"It's only going to get better, as I get better at writing and my friends get better at delivering dialogue," Earhart said. "This is my whole reason to be, to be creative and to express myself, and to allow other people to do it too."
"The General Store" airs 1 p.m. Sundays on WERU (89.9 and 102.2 FM), 6 p.m. Mondays on WMHB (89.7 FM) and 6:30 a.m. Mondays, 7:30 a.m. and 9 p.m. Wednesdays, 12:30 p.m. Fridays and 4:30 p.m. Sundays on http://www.thepublicradiostation.com/. The Twatones will perform Friday, Aug. 18, at Castonguay Square in Waterville.