The days of gathering around a radio with friends and family for an entertaining hour of fun aren’t necessarily gone for good.
Newman University theater professor Ray Wills is proving just that with Kansas Radio Theatre — a radio show filled with local talent and good old-fashioned fun.
The idea was born several years ago when Wills returned to Wichita after working as an actor in New York City for more than 25 years.
Wills said, “My good buddy Don Windsor, who is the writer of the radio plays, he and I did a show together in town and we started batting around this idea.”
Shortly after, Director of Theatre Mark Mannette became involved.
Wills added, “Mark, who hired me here at Newman, got involved and we just batted it around. Finally, we came up with a little version of it that we did at Roxie’s downtown about 2 ½ years ago. We wanted to try it out and it worked.”
But the road to getting on air would be a little longer.
Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and Wills have known each other since their high school days. It was the mayor who approached Wills, asking for advice on doing more for the arts in Wichita.
Wills was happy to share his idea for a variety-style radio show.
“Jeff loved it,” said Wills. “He loved it and helped us do it. He gave us the Empire House at Cowtown to do a show. The idea was we were going to do it there weekly, live, and we were going to be on one of the public radio stations.”
But fate had other plans for Wills and his radio crew. Along came Chris Miller, president of Rocking M Media, who told Wills, “I’ll do this on my radio stations. You can have a studio and the equipment, and he said that we could sell ads and make it a commercial show.”
And so Kansas Radio Theatre was born.
The show itself is an hour-long comedy, music, variety and a live radio play “with sound effects, just like in the old days,” shared Wills.
Listeners familiar with " A Prairie Home Companion" will recognize the format pretty quickly. Each month's play consists of a new serial with local actors and a live band. The current show, The Adventures of Captain Hilltop, is a comedic World War II spy-mystery thriller that includes Mannette in the cast along with fellow Newman theater adjunct professor Alison Bridget Chambers.
“It’s that same kind of thing,” he said, “but it’s all about Kansas with local Kansas talent. We tell Kansas jokes, share weather, sports, news — all fake and comedic.”
Weather reports might include “a chance of wind,” and the sports anchor never quite seems to make it to the sporting event he’s supposed to be covering, so the audience might hear about his favorite meal on the road instead.
There is one authentic Kansas piece to the show that Wills said the audience particularly enjoys.
“We have a historian,” he said, “and a Kansas history section, which is the real serious part of the show, but still really fun. Becky Tanner who writes for The Wichita Eagle and teaches history out at (Wichita State University) does about a five-minute segment each week about Kansas history. Some bits include pieces on Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, the song 'Home on the Range,' Eisenhower, William Allen White and even some quirky Kansas history.”
The shows are pre-recorded but done so live. Wills said his goal is to actually record live in front of an audience to give the show that extra excitement.
"The actors come in and already have their scripts. We sit down, read it through and then go right into the studio and record it live. Because the actors are all so good, and quick, it has all the energy of a live recorded show.
“What we really want to do is go to each of those smaller cities and do a live show," Wills added. "Pratt, Dodge City, Abilene, and all these towns who have little theaters, and really pack people in.”
Kansas Radio Theatre has been on the air for almost two months now. Audiences all over Kansas can find the show on a local radio station. The showtimes are:
Mannette said staying active in local theater is important to him and his career as director of theater at Newman.
Wills agreed. "We keep working and that’s honestly really great," said Wills. "I think the students benefit from it and it’s great for us. We keep working whether it’s acting or directing, we keep practicing what we’re preaching."
Mannette added, "And I think that’s really important because a lot of universities, you get faculty that have gone away from the practical side of it and just teach from the book. But we keep that experience and keeping ourselves involved, so we can tell the students to come see us and even write a review."
Kansas Radio Theatre is on Facebook for those interested in learning more about the show and how to tune in.