Divine Secrets Of The Satellite Sisterhood (08/18/03)
By Reed Bunzel
Followers of the Satellite Sisters already know the story of the mud baths in Calistoga, the improbable business meeting that brought five adult women together for the first time since they parted to follow their own ways for adulthood. For the uninitiated, here it is in a nutshell: In 1996, all five Dolan sisters — Julie, Liz, Sheila, Monica and Lian — trekked to the upper reaches of Napa Valley. There, with flip charts, markers and a good deal of camaraderie, a Radio show with five women co-hosts was born.
Never mind that none of the women had a background in Radio, or that many program directors might view the prospect of five co-hosts as a nightmare, or that women’s conversation as a talk show was new territory. The Dolan sisters knew none of that. In something akin to “putting on a show in the barn,” they set about creating a program concept — “taking meetings,” pitching the show to Radio network brass, looking for funding — and eventually developed a one-hour pilot for WNYC-New York.
The end result was Satellite Sisters, a 60-minute weekly program that debuted on National Public Radio on April Fools’ Day 2000 — an irony that is not lost on the Dolans. Blessed with an innate sense of humor, they look back at the experience as one borne of both naiveté and an uncommon, almost unique sisterly drive. Reminiscent of conversations that might have transpired around the kitchen table in the Dolans’ childhood home in Fairfield, Connecticut, the show almost immediately offered a low-key alternative to the political pundits and self-ascribed experts that were making headlines.
Defying the odds over the past three years, the program grew in popularity among both women and men, eventually spreading to more than 70 Radio stations. At that point, ABC Radio Networks began to take notice. “People clearly were relating to the Satellite Sisters,” observes Traug Keller, the networks’ president. “The program is all about family, and that’s why it appeals to both women and men. As they say, ‘they put the fun back in dysfunctional.’ These women create a community on-air, and the most successful entertainment shows are those that can do that.”
ABC officially picked up Satellite Sisters last fall and, with the help of ABC Senior VP/Programming John McConnell, transitioned it from a compendium of roughly stitched segments into a live three-hour conversation that is broadcast live every Saturday morning. “Saturday is a hugely listened-to time for Radio, and often undersold,” says Keller. “From a network standpoint, it’s been a great sell. It’s great that it’s seen that way on the local side, too. Local sales staffs are saying, ‘Thank God!’”
Revenue opportunities and programming potential aside, the five Dolan sisters primarily look at their show as a way to connect once a week with an audience that’s growing steadily and to discuss contemporary, relevant issues in a humorous and respectful way. “We’ve always looked more for dialogue, rather than diatribe,” Liz Dolan says of the program. “And we think we have achieved that.”
For the record, the Satellite Sisters are: Julie Dolan Smith, a working mother and academician who currently resides with her family in Moscow; Liz Dolan, a graduate of Brown University and former VP of marketing at Nike; Sheila Dolan, former New York City principal and now a teacher in West Los Angeles and mom to a college-age daughter; Monica Dolan, a Georgetown University graduate who is both a nurse and a researcher for a medical supply company; and Lian Dolan, a writer who lives in Pasadena with her husband and two sons.
INK: Which of you deserves the greatest credit for dreaming up the concept of Satellite Sisters?
Lian: I blame Liz entirely. She’s always been the “big picture” person in our family, and she is the one who cooked up the idea of Radio. When this all began, she had been looking at the media landscape and had noticed that there were no real Radio programs for women.
Liz: I was working at Nike in Portland at the time, and I went down to visit Julie, who was living in Menlo Park, California, and commuting to UCLA in Los Angeles. As we were walking in the hills behind Stanford University and commiserating about how our jobs were killing us, Julie’s husband said, “Why don’t you figure out something you can do together? You have so much fun when you’re with each other.”
Julie: That’s right. It started with a conversation. As we say on our show, not every conversation will change your life, but any conversation can. And it was a conversation Liz and I were having about our jobs that changed ours.
Liz: That seemed like a good idea, but Julie was working at UCLA, Sheila was principal of a public school in New York, Monica was a nurse, and Lian was a new mom and a screenwriter. So the big business idea that we could all contribute to wasn’t immediately apparent, but Julie put me in charge of thinking up something.
Julie: Maybe because I was the oldest sister, I delegated that job to Liz. As we were in very different fields, our skill set wasn’t exactly obvious, but we took it as a challenge. Later that same summer, all five sisters, for the first time in our adult lives, went away together without husbands, boyfriends, dogs or kids.
How did the mud-bath episode come about? It’s not your normal business incubator.
Liz: We got together in August 1996 at a very run-down motel in Calistoga, California. I promised my sisters a spa weekend, and I think I under-delivered a little bit on the spa aspect. But I also warned them that I had a business idea that I wanted to float by them, so they all came in for the weekend.
Monica: The mud baths were my idea. I discovered the mud baths in Calistoga when I lived in California for a while, and I had dragged Julie there once before. I’ll take full credit for the mud.
Lian: So we all gathered in the little town for a sister’s weekend, and it was Liz who said, “Why don’t we try a Radio show?” Because it was so incredibly improbable that anything like that would actually ever happen, we all agreed to it. It seemed like a fun exercise for the five of us to sit down and come up with potential segments and guests.
Liz: We started on a Friday afternoon, and we actually held business meetings. Julie brought flip charts and markers, and we sat around the room, talking about what we would want a Radio show to sound like, how it would be different from other shows, what the spirit of the show would be. Thinking back, it was sort of a crazy weekend, but by the end of it, I was assigned to follow up on the plan.
Julie: We were actually in a treatment room at the time, and four of us were in the mud baths. Have you ever done that?
I’ve been to Calistoga, and I don’t like getting into anything where I can’t see the bottom.
Julie: Sheila was like that, too, so she just sat on the edge. In fact, I think there were two sisters in the mud baths, one was in the whirlpool bath, and two were in these Lucy Ricardo-like steam boxes. And it was Liz who said, “You know, I think we ought to have a Radio show.”
Monica: I have to tell you, when Liz first pitched the idea, I was horrified. But at the same time, as soon as she said it, I knew it would happen. There was no question that Liz would make it happen. This was six or seven years ago, and when I started telling people that my sisters and I were thinking of doing a talk Radio show, everyone started laughing. They told me things like, “No one’s going to give you the time of day” and “You don’t know anything about Radio.” I definitely was dragged in kicking and screaming. When they said I had to talk on air, all the blood drained out of my face.
Julie: Monica wanted no part of it. She is probably the funniest sister in terms of storytelling, but she also is very shy. So the idea of having a public life, or speaking on the Radio, was just abhorrent. She supported us, but she made it clear she wanted no part of it.
Sheila: At the time, I was a public school principal in New York, and so I was very consumed with my job. I told Liz I didn’t really know what kind of commitment I could make, but count me in on the project. I said, “I don’t know what I can do for the show, but I’d like to be a part of it.”
Was anyone else reluctant?
Julie: At the time, it seemed like the most preposterous idea I’d ever heard. However, we had all grown up listening to the Radio, and what appealed to me was that we could have a show that sounded like the conversations we had with each other. Liz was flying around a lot at the time. She’d be sitting in some red-carpet club in an airport, and she’d call me up. She would support and appreciate the things going on in my life, and I would hear about her life. That’s what we wanted to do on the Radio.
Lian: Because it was Liz, we sort of believed that it might happen, but I don’t think we really thought it would. We did absolutely nothing on the project for a year, but I knew that, when Liz quit her job at Nike on her 40th birthday, she was going to get serious about Satellite Sisters. When Liz gets serious about something, it generally happens.
Do you think they were just humoring you at the time, Liz?
Liz: Yes. They were like “OK, Liz — good idea. Now why don’t you just call us again when you get that Radio show put together?” While we all believed it was something we would listen to, there wasn’t necessarily any particular business vision for how to make it happen. I really didn’t do anything for a year — except think about it a lot. In September ’97, I decided to quit my Nike job on my 40th birthday. That fall, Lian and I went back to work on the Satellite Sisters idea. We still had all the flip-chart pages from the meeting at the mud bath — some of them even had stains. We boiled the idea down to a “one-pager,” as they say in Hollywood, and we started showing it to people.
Did it ever occur to you that the odds of getting a show on the air were stacked against you?
Liz: Ignorance was essential to the process. We had no idea what the pitfalls were and how difficult certain aspects would be. We just put one foot in front of the other very slowly. We got the first meetings, we got the pilot made, we got the green light, and we started looking for funding. Looking back, we were naďve enough not to know how difficult it would be, or how many people might have tried it before and failed. The idea of failure didn’t really enter our minds. We never thought it might not work, and that’s what pushed me forward. I just felt that, someday, someone was going to crack this, so why not us?
How would you describe Satellite Sisters — the program as well as the relationship between the five of you?
Sheila: It’s our natural chemistry as sisters — the sound of sisterhood, the sound of friendship that our listeners really enjoy and identify with. Some people also look to us to present positive viewpoints in the decision-making process that all women and men go through in their lives.
Monica: The sound is so familiar to listeners because it reminds them of their own family and friends. The first three years we were on the air, we were told constantly that we sounded just like someone’s sisters or a book club where women gathered to talk. That’s why the show works. That’s what makes it different and separates it from other shows with just one host, with one host’s opinion. It’s definitely the sense of connection that we have with each other.
Julie: It’s the chemistry between the sisters. You can’t fake that. People have told us that what they like about the show is that sound of friendship — the very natural reactions that we have to each other, whether they’re positive or negative. We don’t always agree with each other, but the listeners can understand that we are still family. We try not to be didactic or preachy. We are not experts. We’re just sisters, and that self-effacing, self-deprecating style makes us very approachable.
Liz: There’s also a unique-ness, a certain chemistry that comes from having us all as a part of the show. A lot of Radio professionals might have trouble imagining what five co-hosts could sound like, but it’s really more structured than that. Lian and I do most of the actual hosting, but everyone participates in the course of the show.
Lian: The miraculous thing about our combined skill set is that we all have naturally found our roles in this. Liz is the business person, I take care of the writing and a lot of the creative stuff on the show. Julie came from an academic business administration background, so it’s her job to set up our meetings and facilitate them. Sheila’s a first-grade teacher, so she brings snacks; and Monica brings the allergy pills, because she’s a nurse.
Do you make conscious decisions about the show content — your topics?
Lian: The best metaphor is that the program is a conversation you would have sitting around a dinner table, or hanging out with your friends for a weekend. There would be a wide range of things you would talk about — from politics to potluck dinners — and we cover all that. Not surprisingly, we have discovered that the smaller issues about our everyday lives engage more listeners.
Monica: We’re really interested in different families and how they work. We also like to do stories about women who are unique, who have done something different with their lives. We don’t talk about sex, because our parents listen every week. That’s very private. We’re not the type to sit around and talk about our sex lives, like Sex and the City.
Sheila: Well, not all the sisters have explored their love lives on the show, but I’ve been willing to talk about mine. Maybe that’s because I have one. I’m out there dating, while my sisters are not, so I always have something to report on.
Do you focus on any specific topics?
Lian: Family is definitely the No. 1 thing we talk about. We’ve done things on taking care of a sick sibling or trying to persuade your parents to write a will, things like that.
Sheila: Anything that has to do with family, things that people go through. We talk a lot about holidays, reunions, commitments, jobs — real-life issues.
Liz: Exactly. Everybody is in transition almost all the time, and that is what friends talk about to each other: “Should I take this new job?” “Should I start a new business?” “Should I move across the country?” “Should I get married?” We all seek each other’s input on how to navigate the transitions; you depend on friends and family to help you do that. A person’s or a family’s values have no one place on the political spectrum; there are all kinds of families and all kinds of values. We would like to open the discussion of family values to make it more inclusive, more what’s actually happening in real life.
What topics seem to engage listeners the most?
Lian: One of our most popular shows recently was a segment we did on wedding etiquette, whereas a conversation we had about Anika Sorenstam got only three calls. Most people go to weddings, so they care more about weddings than a woman playing golf in a men’s tournament.
Liz: We got a lot of calls from both men and women on that wedding-etiquette segment. That really surprised me. It’s a topic we had never done before, and I thought some people might think it was too “girly.” But that was not the case. It was an emotionally charged show.
Julie: You’d think the callers we got on this topic would all be women — brides, mothers of the bride, disgruntled bridesmaids. But most of the calls we got on the show that day were from men. We don’t deny the fact that we’re five women — that’s certainly our frame of reference and point of view — but our show appeals to both men and women because we talk about things that interest people, just as though you were sitting around, having a cup of coffee with your friends.
Are there subjects you tend to avoid?
Liz: If you had five people sitting around a dinner table, some issues naturally would come up. But unusual things would come up, too, and you’d approach them from a personal perspective. For example, while you wouldn’t necessarily discuss social security reform, you might talk about what it’s like to care for your aging parent or help them sort through benefits they have or don’t have.
Lian: We have definitely shied away from having politicians on the show. They rarely talk in real voices, and there’s no one politician that represents the Satellite Sister point of view.
Sheila: Our guests are not necessarily experts. Many of them are real people who may have done some remarkable things. The guests we really enjoy, even if they’re famous, are people who have down-to-earth qualities and can present their real selves to our listeners.
Does your show primarily target women, or do you also speak to the men in the audience?
Lian: It’s still too early for the ratings to tell us; but on public Radio, we had about a 40/60 split, men to women. Judging from our mail and e-mail now, it’s about 50/50. A lot of men tell us that they like to listen because it gives them a window into what goes on in the women’s room — what women talk about when they’re away from men. But we also get a lot of e-mails from fathers who say it reminds them of having their grown daughters back in the kitchen again. Essentially, we get both the fly on the wall and the people who want to be right in the middle of it.
Monica: We also try to engage the men in the audience. Probably half of our guests are men, but it’s just natural that, since we’re five women, we gravitate toward women’s issues. Still, male listeners can connect with the show.
Sheila: Both men and women enjoy our show. Whether they have siblings or not, whether they’re married or single, people can always relate to the fact that we’re a family. Of course, we bring women’s perspectives to the topics that we present. I think we’re very diverse women, so people can relate and identify with some or all of us. They can pick and choose which sister to identify with.
What formatic elements make this program work?
Liz: The two main things we want people to hear are respect and humor. That’s the way people talk to their friends and family. It’s fun to be around your friends because you laugh at their jokes and they laugh at yours. It’s important to us that people hear both of those things, rather than just the same polarizing political diatribes.
Monica: Listeners connect to the sound of friendship, and they connect to the humor. This is the way people really talk to each other — they try to tell a funny story, instead of just telling a story. And that’s what we try to do on the air, too.
Sheila: That’s right. The main glue is really the sense of humor. Even with very serious topics, I think the sisters are always able to find a sense of humor — some sort of positive spin on whatever story we’re doing. It also helps that we’re real sisters and that we respect each other. That’s been one of the binding elements of the show.
Julie: Humor is everything. Maybe that’s our Irish background. I think it’s everything.
If you have a conversation at a dinner table, politics will come up, religion will come up, but you discuss those things in a way that’s respectful — and that’s what we try to do.
Would Satellite Sisters work on television, or would the Radio chemistry be diluted?
Liz: We’ve all said that we never want to be five sisters on a couch. We’re not interested in that. The key to our working relationship is that we work together by ourselves. If we were all in the same city every day, using the same coffee machine and the same copier, things could get really testy. We like the fact that we can have real people on the show, and it’s not intimidating. No one’s pointing a camera in your face. You get people who will talk about things that are going on in their lives without its being a completely nerve-racking experience.
Monica: A TV show? That means we’d all have to move to the same city, and I’m not moving. We’ve been to L.A. and talked to people about different TV pilots, but the thing about TV is, it’s all about what you look like on the screen. It’s all about the hair and makeup. That doesn’t appeal to us at all. We love the idea of Radio, that it’s just voices on the Radio and it’s not “do you look like a star?” Not that some of us don’t look like stars!
Satellite Sisters started as an experiment dreamed up in a mud-bath. Has it become a genuine, long-term endeavor?
Lian: Definitely. We’ll never run out of things to talk about, so we’ll be able to do this for a long time. It’s incredibly exciting to be part of something that people describe as new and fresh. That makes it all worthwhile — and something we really want to pursue for a long time.
Liz: Right now, we have the ABC Radio Networks show, a regular column in O, The Oprah Magazine, and a book on the market [Satellite Sisters’ Uncommon Senses]. From the very beginning, we thought that, if we could represent women’s lives in this more fun and holistic way, there would be lots of different things we could do. Still, we believe that this is fundamentally a Radio idea, because it is so much about conversation — the listening and the talking that help us navigate our lives.
Monica: It’s different things to different sisters. It’s a full-time job for Liz and Lian, while Sheila and I both work part time, so the show is more of a part-time job. However, I look at it as a long-term endeavor. It’s that much fun to work with my sisters. There is something that the listeners connect to, and I’d be happy to do this full time.
Sheila: Right now, I really, really enjoy having both jobs in my life. It’s definitely a great time for the sisters to catch up with each other. It’s also a job that we all take very seriously. Still, we’re always pinching ourselves because it’s so much fun.
Julie: We wrote the book, and that was a big spin-off for us. But ultimately, we are focused on doing good Radio. Every single week, we’re like “Hey, we’re still on the air; this is good!”
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