Big River Radio Wave

stage and radio show to visit Chippewa Falls

Lindsey Quinnies

Coming to the Heyde Center on May 20,  Big River Radio Wave can be heard on WPR, Friday nights, July–Sept. Above: Big River Radio Wave house band The Riverbenders.
Coming to the Heyde Center on May 20, Big River Radio Wave can be heard on WPR, Friday nights, July–Sept. Above: Big River Radio Wave house band The Riverbenders.

After forming a band called the RiverBenders with his friends and seeing other live talent pass through his venue, theater owner Mac Cherry decided it would be fun to do a variety show and feature a mix of entertainers. So became the Big River Radio Wave.

“We try to format the show to a sense of place ... unique, small town Wisconsin with the most beautiful topography and a unique culture.”
Mac Cherry, host of Big River Radio Wave

The Big River Radio Wave is a live radio variety show including music, literature, storytelling, comedy, and theater usually performed at the Big River Theater in the downtown district of Alma, Wis. The whole idea behind the hour long show is to feature “performers, themes and topics native to the rural upper Midwest area in which the show is performed, but easily accessible to a wider audience.” Cherry, an Alma area musician and owner/operator of Big River Theater Co. who also hosts the show, shares, “we try to format the show to a sense of place …unique small town Wisconsin with the most beautiful topography and a unique culture … no place is as beautiful and majestic as the Mississippi River valley.” Not only do the entertainers fit into this realm of embracing the locality through the use of community volunteers and performers, but the typical venue does as well, seating just over 100 people creating an intimate, relaxed atmosphere for audience members. Performers aren’t always the same but permanently include Cherry’s house band The RiverBenders, which is also composed of husband and wife duo Mike Congdon and Patty Carlson , Brian Schellinger (B Squat Woody), Rick Sampson, and Steve “Alty” Altobel.   Versatility is a key component of this six-piece band that plays “bluegrass to rock ‘n roll to folk to country” music.   It is obvious that these people love to play together and “get along as well as they sound.”  

Although many of the performers rotate, there are some key contributors and frequent guests that add to the production. Al Ross, an announcer for WPR, has been involved since the show began four seasons ago; he adds a “dimension of professionalism and polishes the show.” One of the frequent guests has been Minneapolis based comedian and “folk humorist” Mary Mack. Born and raised in rural northwest Wisconsin, she lends her comedy with clever sing-a-longs aside mentions to life in the north woods and eccentric, true experiences.   Storytelling is an art form that another entertainer and regular participant Kenny Salwey has pretty much mastered. As the author of The Last River Rat: Tales of My Life on the Mississippi River, he has experienced a rare existence few of us can relate to: He lived close to nature along the Mississippi River as a guide, trapper, fisherman, hunter, and general woodsman. His tales of wisdom and insight trickle out slowly, but they will compel you to listen closely to his irreplaceable experiences about living and working hard. Kenny’s stories have become “a pivotal part of the actual performance.” Aside from these regulars, other guest musicians and artists are among the “faces from a small rural area that speak to a unique culture.”

The show is usually recorded at the theatre in Alma, but recently they have been taking it on the road. On May 20, the group will make their way to the Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls for two performances (4 PM and 6 PM) with entertainers such as the RiverBenders, Mary Mack, Kenny Salwey, musician Jerry Way, and funny guy Tim Scobie. The St. Croix Festival Theatre will also host the variety show on June 17 with special guest Gordy Bischoff, local builder of handcrafted guitars, and others to be announced.  

Mac Cherry says the show is meaningful to him because it “gives the opportunity to admire, respect, and enjoy the company of other artists … different art forms trying to gel in an hour offered a unique opportunity.” According the show itself, “The end result is an engaging and authentic theatrical experience rooted in community, with intelligence, wit and charm all its own,” a claim the community has come to agree with. The Big River Radio Wave will be broadcast Friday night, July through September, at 6 PM on 90.3 WHLA/La Crosse, 88.3 WHWC/Menomonie-Eau Claire and 88.7 WRFW/River Falls.

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