Sisters with a friendly connection

LIZ DOLAN was 38, living in Portland, Ore., but spending enormous amounts of time on the road as director of global marketing for Nike. She was tired of traveling and eager to find a new job that would let her stay home more and keep in regular contact with her four sisters, to whom she'd always been close.

Little did she know that the idea she came up with a few months later -- a nationally syndicated radio show starring the five Dolan sisters -- would prove both a huge success and a likely harbinger of a revolution in talk radio itself.

"As a marketing person and someone who grew up in a family that listened to a lot of radio, I had long wondered why daytime television is filled with women and programming for women, and there was almost nothing by or for women on radio," Liz told me when I had breakfast in Santa Monica last weekend with her and all four of her sisters. "My sisters and I always talked to each other a lot on the phone, so I figured why not do it on radio, with an audience."

Since none of the sisters had any radio experience, Liz knew she'd be scoffed at when she proposed the idea. So she was a bit sneaky at first. She called all her sisters and invited them to a summer "spa weekend" in Calistoga -- the kind of sisterly outing that was fairly familiar to them and that, as the family organizer, she often arranged.

"She waited until we were all in the mud baths or sweat boxes -- completely naked -- so we couldn't run away until she'd explained her idea," sister Lian said.

What was the sisters' reaction?

"Total shock," Julie said. "Then no one said a word about it for about a year. I think we were all embarrassed that we even thought we could actually do something like this."

But Liz was undaunted. She put together a proposal for the show and sent it off to WNYC, the National Public Radio station in New York.

ON April 1, 2000, "Satellite Sisters" made its debut on NPR stations in New York, Chicago, Portland and Ann Arbor, Mich. It was an hour long, once a week, always taped at WNYC six weeks before airing. But the WNYC studios were just a few blocks from what became ground zero when terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001; for several weeks thereafter, the studios were inaccessible. The sisters moved uptown and, deprived of their editing and production facilities, they had to switch to a quasi-live format.

John McConnell, senior vice president of ABC Radio Networks, heard the first of these shows while driving in his car one afternoon. He fell instantly in love with it.

"They were doing something uniquely different than anything else I'd ever heard," McConnell says. "The show consisted of them checking in with each other on the phone, talking about their lives and about what was happening in the world, and they did it in a very touching fashion.

"Most talk radio is angry and divisive. What they were doing was just the opposite of divisive. They were making connections -- with each other, with their guests and with their listeners," McConnell says. "I wanted them for ABC."

There are a few successful women talk show hosts -- Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Laura Ingraham and Dr. Joy Browne among them -- but about 90% of the hosts are men. The audience is more evenly divided, though -- 60% male, 40% female, according to McConnell.

"There is clearly an opening for more women hosts and more women listeners," he says.

He lured the "Satellite Sisters" away from NPR and launched them on ABC -- live, for three hours every week -- in February 2003. All the sisters were in their 40s by then, living different lives in different cities. Lian, married with two young children, was trying her hand at screenwriting and living in Pasadena. Monica was (and still is) in Portland, where she's a nurse. Julie had moved to Moscow, where her husband is an executive with an American oil company. Liz, still single, and Sheila, divorced, both lived in Santa Monica. So the show was (and is) produced here -- where it's heard on KABC from 6 to 9 a.m. every Saturday, billed as "five real sisters

Julie gives them a unique international perspective. When Chechen terrorists laid deadly siege to a school in Beslan, in southern Russia, last year, she phoned in live reports. She also provided Russian man-(and woman)-in-the-street reactions to the war in Iraq and the U.S. presidential election.

The sisters are now heard on 110 stations across the nation, and the show's advertising revenue has tripled in the past year to "a healthy seven figures," says Jennifer Purtan, senior vice president for advertising sales and marketing at ABC Radio Networks. McConnell says it's the most successful weekend radio talk show in the country, and he hopes to expand it to five days a week, Monday through Friday, within the next year.

He also sees "Satellite Sisters" as the cutting edge of a talk-show revolution.

With traditional radio under siege by satellite radio, the Internet and the iPod, network and station executives are eager for new formats to maintain their audience.

As one panelist pointed out during the industry's annual Talk Radio Seminar in Santa Monica last weekend, women have the dominant purchasing power in the country today. Cumulatively, they buy 81% of all goods and services -- and make 55% of all car-buying decisions.

"Advertisers want to reach women, and talk radio is one way to do that," McConnell says.

Twenty years ago, there were only about 100 talk radio stations in the country. Today there are about 1,500, with more than 4,000 hosts. Why are the vast majority male? In part, discrimination and tradition -- the same reasons men dominate most other fields (including newspaper op-ed pages, which have been much in the news of late for just that reason, especially at The Times). Also, the first stars of talk radio were men, so network executives and station programmers did what people in virtually every field do: They copied successful formulas. Those formulas featured male hosts talking primarily about politics and sports, two subjects generally thought to appeal more to male than female listeners.

The political talk show stars -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage -- were and are not just political but angry ideologues, and that led to what McConnell calls the "heated, divisive nature of the medium."

The "Satellite Sisters" are not ideological or angry. They do talk about the news and sometimes politics, but they aren't partisans, and whatever they talk about, they do so with humor and sensitivity, not rage.

I'M not a talk radio fan -- blind partisan invective is not what I want to listen to when I'm in my car, stuck in traffic -- but I find the Satellite Sisters absolutely delightful. Their affection for one another is manifest, and they also tease one another constantly, albeit good-naturedly. In the six weeks I've been listening to them regularly, they've spoken with one another and with guests (often authors) and listeners about such wide-ranging topics as miscarriage, steroid use by athletes, Martha Stewart, the Oscars, the "fear of success" that affects many women, the Christo Gates in New York, a woman's readjustment to society after spending 16 years in prison, the Super Bowl and the controversial comments made by Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, about why so few women achieve tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.

Four of the five sisters are sympathetic to Martha Stewart and think she shouldn't have been imprisoned. Julie disagrees, and their discussions on the topic have been as spirited as they have been amusing.

The show's audience, like most of talk radio, is more male than female --although at 55% male, 45% female, it gets a slightly higher percentage of women than talk radio as a whole -- but fewer listeners of either sex get on the air than on most talk shows.

"There are five of us, and we have enough trouble getting all our opinions in," Liz says.

Each of the five has areas of special interest. Sheila, whose full-time job now is as a first-grade teacher, is the entertainment reporter and movie reviewer. (She's not unaware of the similarities between teaching first-graders and interviewing celebrities.)

Because Monica is a nurse, she does most of the science and medicine stories. Julie, with access to the BBC from her Moscow apartment, has been talking a lot of late about the pending wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. Lian, whose children are now 7 and 9, does most of the stories on family and parenting. Liz, the only sister who works on the show full time, does a little (or, more accurately, a lot) of everything.

But she's uneasy about expanding the show to five days a week.

"We think one of the strengths of our show is that we have real lives outside the show," she says. "I'm worried that if we're on every day, we'll just become full-time bloviators, expressing our opinions on everything, without any real-life experience to back it up."

David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read his previous "Media Matters" columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-media.

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