‘Like looking at the moon’: Old-fashioned radio show brings isolated seniors together

A screengrab of a group Zoom video call.
Members of Spirit Song Choir meet on Zoom to record an episode of Spirit Song Radio. They created the old-fashioned radio variety show to provide a communal experience for residents in senior living facilities when the pandemic forced them to isolate in their rooms.
Courtest of Mary Vaaler Reimann

Twice a month, the voices of Tom V., Annie K, and a cast of other fictional characters boom through the radios and televisions of two Woodbury senior living communities. 

“Welcome to WSSR, otherwise known as Spirit Song Radio, where our music is ringing and our listeners are singing.”

Reminiscent of an old-time radio variety show, WSSR is the pandemic ingenuity of Spirit Song Choir.

“If you had said to me a year ago that I would be helping to produce a radio show, I would have said you were crazy because I didn’t have any background in that,” said Mary Vaaler Reimann, the choir’s director. 

She founded it in late 2019 with a special focus on bringing song and community into senior living communities. And they were doing just that — until the pandemic hit.

“It took the wind out of our sails, and I know so many have had that experience of everything that they know in their normal lives just stopping,” Reimann said. “But in particular, because our mission took us into these communities, we realized we just didn’t know what to do. But we wanted to do something.”

They tried linking up residents and choir members for one-on-one phone calls, but that lacked the communal experience of singing as a group. Then they tried daily singalongs on Facebook Live, but it wasn’t reaching the elderly residents they wanted to serve. Then they learned Stonecrest Senior Living in Woodbury had gotten its hands on a low-power FM transmitter. 

“I just thought: radio. It’s how they used to do it,” said Renee Vaughan, Stonecrest’s director of life enrichment. 

So, as businesses and families turned to new technology to connect during the pandemic, Spirit Song Choir instead turned to the time-tested medium of radio to bring residents together in song.

Each episode starts with a theme — usually an upcoming holiday — and a selection of songs to match. Then volunteer script writers stitch them together with dialogue. The group records the dialogue together on Zoom. For the songs, each member of the choir records his or her part using a cell phone application. Then it all gets blended in GarageBand to sound as if everyone were in the same room acting and singing together.

Though anyone can listen on their own via SoundCloud, Stonecrest and Saint Therese air them on the FM signal or facility televisions at a scheduled time.

“It’s like the old romantic, ‘Look at the moon at 9 o’clock and I’ll look at it, too.’ That’s what you get. You can hear the songs down the hallway when it’s playing on the radio and you can hear people singing in their apartments, and you know your neighbors are experiencing the same thing you are,” Vaughan said. “That’s pretty wonderful.”

“It just gives me a chance to get out of the four walls of my apartment,” said Stonecrest resident Ruth Bunch. “It’s been a bright spot in the week, because it’s music that I recognize. It’s very uplifting and a lot of fun.”

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