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Have you ever bought a baby grand piano at an estate auction, even though you already had one at home that you didn’t know how to play? No? Well then, maybe you’ve given a gift to a friend and then, sometime later, spotted it on the dollar table at that friend’s garage sale. Or perhaps you’ve found yourself making the argument to your child that, in fact, she does not need a pet hedgehog.
These situations from daily life form the stuff of Valerie Brown-Kuchera’s comedy radio program, “Little Spouse on the Prairie.” That’s where she “pokes affectionate fun at her husband, her kids, her home and her rural life, even though she loves them all fiercely” – thus, the “spouse” in the title.
The “prairie” in the title refers to her home on the High Plains of Western Kansas, in the town of Quinter, population 1,000. Traveling across Kansas from east to west on Interstate 70, by the time you hit Quinter, the uplift of the Rocky Mountains is noticeable in the car tires and in the periscopic views. The highest points on the landscape here in Gove County are the fragile limestone, chalk and shale formation of the Castle Rock Badlands, which once guided native American travelers as well as white emigrants along the Oregon Trail.
There is something very unique about the isolation, and that makes radio a special medium, especially HPPR because it’s tailored for the people who live there.
— Valerie Brown-Kuchera
One voice that knits western Kansas to the larger world is High Plains Public Radio, based in Garden City, Kansas. It has produced “Little Spouse on the Prairie” since 2017. Earlier this month the Kansas Association of Broadcasters awarded the program first prize in commentary for 2019.
What most of the HPPR listening area has in common is the vast distances separating people from each other, at least in the physical sense. But that doesn’t mean people are cut off from the world. Perhaps that’s why the station chose as its motto: “In touch with the world – at home on the High Plains.”
HPPR operates a network of 18 FM stations and translators providing public radio service to 78 counties across five states of the High Plains region. The network’s range cuts a swath through Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. There are distinct differences across this region, from high arid small towns to hot, humid cities. For nearly all of this area, HPPR is the sole source of public radio service. The radio station strives to produce or syndicate programming of value to everyone there.
As Brown-Kuchera says of the High Plains, “There is something very unique about the isolation, and that makes radio a special medium, especially HPPR because it’s tailored for the people who live there.”
Her program airs on Sunday morning, in a five-minute break during NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Later that morning listeners can hear syndicated shows including “Sunday Baroque,” “Classical Guitar Alive” and the “Thomas Jefferson Hour,” hosted by Clay S. Jenkins, a Jefferson scholar who broadcasts in the persona of our third president.
Brown-Kuchera aims to tell humorous, entertaining stories to which listeners can relate. She mostly imagines the rural resident, somebody like herself who drives long distances to work or to shop for items beyond the basics. The common denominator of her stories is family, the hectic life of raising children, the well-meaning and supportive spouse and the goofy everyday things that happen. “If something happens to me and I think, ‘Isn’t that just the way it always works?’ then there’s the seed for a program idea.”
Brown-Kuchera jokes that her mother and a few friends are the only ones up on Sunday morning at 8:35 listening to her show. It helps her listenership that the program can be heard online at any time on HPPR’s website. She’s also working to build a social media following by posting on Facebook and Twitter. However, she suspects that many of the station’s listeners are older people, perhaps less inclined to engage with a radio program beyond hearing it on air. But affirmations do come. There was that “snail mail” fan letter from a listener. And once, when her mother was traveling and chatting with someone she’d met along the way, she mentioned her daughter Valerie’s radio show. The other person replied, “Oh, my gosh, that’s my dad’s favorite program. He always listens to it when he’s out on the tractor!”
Maybe Brown-Kuchera hadn’t specifically pictured a male listenership to that point, but it gave her something else to think about when brainstorming topics. Mostly, she’s trying to reach “busy rural folks who face work, life and family and get through it with a chuckle.”
Ground zero for her tales is Kansas, since that’s the area she knows best. She was “raised poor on a dairy farm” and understands that life very well. She’s not involved in farming now; instead, she teaches English at Ft. Hays State University and leads book discussions for Humanities Kansas. She is working on a Ph.D. in information science from Emporia State University, a four-hour drive to the east. She spends a lot of time in her car. She downplays these achievements; after all, she’s in her 40s now and still has years to go before finishing that degree.
Brown-Kuchera’s busy rural life and thus program material includes a 1904 Victorian home which she’s been working on restoring “for a lifetime.” It includes a full-time job, two teenagers, a six-year old, and her husband Joel Kuchera, “a hilarious guy who provides fodder for show.” Her work for the radio station is strictly as a volunteer, but she finds it worthwhile. In part, she says, you never know what something will lead to. “You never know who is driving out there, listening to the radio and might hear this,” she says.
In spite of her hard-won accomplishments, Brown-Kuchera is mindful to come across on the air as a typical western Kansas gal. One example is her recent vacation to Europe with family and a few friends, ripe with funny anecdotes of goof-ups to share. She reminds herself that lots of people never have the opportunity for that sort of travel, and even for her, this was not an everyday event. “We’re not rich,” she says of herself and her husband. “We’re teachers.” That’s why she focuses on the funny family exploits and her fear of flying, rather than the grand vistas and historic museums. She includes herself as she introduces the series with these words: “Here’s hoping all HPPR’s listeners are planted firmly on the High Plains as they hear the upcoming series of episodes collectively called, ‘Little Spouse in Europe.’“
Brown-Kuchera loves to write and spent years working on more serious literary work such as poetry and fiction. In part because of her teaching job and involvement with Humanities Kansas, HPPR asked her to be one of the leaders on its Radio Readers Book Club, an on-air and online book discussion on matters of interest to the High Plains region. HPPR producers, including Angie Haflich, the original engineer of the show, asked Brown-Kuchera to pitch a comedy sketch program, and based on a hilarious tale about her husband’s snoring, they offered her a show. She’d never been a comedy writer, but suddenly she was able to put aside other forms and find a lighter way to think about what was happening in her world. That was at a time when there weren’t many comedic female voices to listen to, and as Brown-Kuchera notes, there still aren’t many. Yet now the show is about to mark two years on the air.
“It landed on my lap,” she says of “Little Spouse.” But like lots of great opportunities, it came with a cost. This one involved the two-hour drive south and west from Quinter to Garden City to record the program at the HPPR studio. She started off going there about once a month to record several shows at a time. Fortunately, the college where she teaches has a media studies program, and about year ago opened its radio/television facilities to her. She’s able to work with faculty engineer Ron Rohlf, who then adds in various sounds and other comic effects. The program even has its own theme song, “Little Spouse Rag.” It was composed for the show by Kelly Werts, a Kansas City folk artist and recording studio owner.
The result is a program that brings alive Brown-Kuchera’s vision of what she describes as a slightly more “snarky and sarcastic Erma Bombeck” filtered through “A Prairie Home Companion” sensibility.
When you write about family, you have to have some buy-in from them. Brown-Kuchera’s teenage daughter has nixed several topics, but she did record a promotional spot for the show. “She’s game most the time,” Brown-Kuchera says. She also reads all the sketches to Joel ahead of time for his feedback. He has come to use “spouse” as a verb, as in, “I’ve been Little-Spoused.”
She does have a few bigger long-term dreams, beyond the comedy program. She’s been approached by an editor who would like to take her short comic essays and shape them into a book. Right now, Brown-Kuchera doesn’t have the time to dedicate to that task but hopes someday to make it happen. The comedy writer in her would also love the chance to take part in the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop in Dayton, Ohio, perhaps as a participant, but ideally as a writer-in-residence.
She’s also thought about tackling some slightly more serious topics on her show. She doesn’t want to stray too far into politics or controversy. One small step in that direction occurred on a recent program, when we learned that her daughter accidentally baked a plastic spatula into the brownies she was preparing. That allowed Brown-Kuchera to wade a bit into the theme of recycling, and the sorts of toxins that seep into our landfills and environment. “I do dip my toe into things a little bit, but then I snap back into the ha-ha funny person.”
In the meantime, she keeps a running list of topics that can each yield several episodes of the show. She writes a 750-word essay that becomes the five-minute show. She says that very little of what she writes is exaggerated or changed from what actually occurred in her life, although she might throw in a few funny one-liners after the fact. In the end, she traces her ability to generate endless new ideas to reading widely and deeply, and her family’s seemingly bottomless well of antics.
Brown-Kuchera says she’s wired to make connections between what she reads and what she observes in daily life. She believes that writers help erect the scaffold that allows people to have context for what they observe in their own lives. She has noticed, however, that people seem to be reading far less than they once did and wonders about the long-term effect that will have on society as a whole. But radio is a beautiful medium for telling stories. More often than she knows, a listener on the High Plains or beyond is likely hearing her voice, lilting and funny and warm. Maybe they are thinking, “Funny, that sound just like my family. She definitely gets us.” Then all those experiences lived and miles driven will have been worth it. Because you never know who is listening.
Julianne Couch seeks out the hilarious in her own rural life from her home in Bellevue, Iowa. She’s been a Daily Yonder contributor since 2008.