Jumping ship 

Public radio's Marcia Dunn docks the Pea Green Boat

With the Pea Green Boat’s theme song already riding the airwaves of western Montana, and a chapter from the last book of C. S. Lewis’s “Narnia” series on cue, KUFM children’s radio show host Marcia Dunn swivels her chair from microphone to telephone. The tall silver-haired woman checks her voice mail for requests.

On this Friday in early January, a mother wants a whole list of favorite songs played so she can make a recording. That won’t work, Dunn says. Parents are welcome to make requests and then record the Pea Green Boat for their children. But an entire list? No.

Another listener wants Dunn to return the call, so she does. But then Dunn gets put on hold while the person who answers the phone tries to find the person with the request. This won’t work either.

“C’mon, I can’t stay here all day,” Dunn says into the unresponsive mouthpiece, her voice friendly yet direct, her eyes on the soundboard’s digital count-down. “This is a radio show.”

These are not rare experiences for Dunn. After 23 years of hosting the Pea Green Boat, she knows how to communicate with devices that can’t talk back and how to keep the songs and stories rolling effortlessly. Hosting a radio show is like having a one-way conversation that stops for nothing.

Except, in Dunn’s case, the conversation stops at the end of January.

After a career of broadcasting every weekday afternoon for an hour, the silver-haired Dunn is retiring at age 61 for no other reason than that her “thermostat” says it’s time. The Pea Green Boat will still have the same name, which comes from The Owl and the Pussycat by Ed Lear. And the theme song will remain “Golden Slippers,” a syncopated ditty from an album called Learning the Hammered Dulcimer. Meanwhile, KUFM is looking for her replacement.

But the prospect of turning on the radio and not hearing Dunn is, frankly, alarming to Karen Gonzales, children’s librarian at the Missoula Public Library and a regular guest on the show. Gonzales and her coworkers recently crowned Dunn “Queen of the Wild Things” with a tiara and performed a tribute called “Pea Green Boat and Ham.” With apologies to Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss, respectively, of course.

“She’s the premier children’s programmer in the country,” Gonzales says. “When I was doing the show on Saturday, I got choked up. I didn’t mean to. I tried hard not to. But it’s just going to be so different without her. One of my friends says that we need to give her permission to retire and that we can’t be selfish forever. But I’m not ready yet.”

The synergy between Dunn’s public radio show and the public library is natural, Gonzales explains. Children and their parents come to the library to read the stories and listen to the songs they hear on the show, or to find out what happens next in Narnia if the pace of one chapter a day is too slow. But when Dunn actually makes a public appearance at the library, it creates a celebrity sensation in the children’s section. Gonzales says the hubbub demonstrates the impact Dunn has on children, and on their interest in books and music.

Dunn took over the show in 1980 when her sons, both young listeners at the time, heard that former host Germaine Conrad was stepping down to run for Missoula County Commissioner. On her first day, Dunn was introduced to the turntable and the microphone by station manager Terry Conrad, Germaine’s husband, and promptly put on the air.

Since then, the Pea Green Boat has become a cornerstone of Montana Public Radio, even though conventional industry wisdom holds that children’s programming doesn’t pay. Before turning to commercial radio as teenagers, children build listening habits with Dunn, Terry Conrad says, and then return, hopefully with checkbooks in hand, as adult listeners of jazz and news.

In the beginning, Dunn made mistakes, but they turned out to be the right kind of mistakes. Once, when she was responsible for an opera show following children’s programming on Saturday afternoons, Dunn accidentally played the schoolyard classic “Great Big Gobs of Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts” instead of the aria.

But Dunn never spoke condescendingly to her audience, never employed a squeaky adult-trying-to-sound-like-a-child voice, and never tried to be moralistic. At first, this was hard because these were exactly the traits dominating children’s entertainment at the time.

“When I first started, the material was mostly just what adults thought was cute, like singing campfire songs, or singing down to children,” Dunn says. “But children don’t put up with junk. If it’s boring, they’ll quit listening.”

Instead, Dunn tried to maintain an emphasis on play and amusement, as if she were welcoming her two boys home from school instead of broadcasting to them from a sound-proof room at the University of Montana. She read bad jokes like Where do cows go for entertainment? The Mooovies. She celebrated Kwanzaa and Ramadan. She hosted folk singers and Native American drummers. And she invited animals to the show.

In recent years, wolves and dogs have roamed the studio, and even eagles, owls and hawks. Canines at least make sense—they can howl and bark. Raptors, on the other hand, are rather quiet. But Dunn says anything can be made interesting for radio listeners, as long as the host and the guest have the right attitude.

“I just pretend like I’m talking among friends,” Dunn says. “That way anything is possible on the radio, short of mime.”

In perhaps the supreme test of that philosophy, Dunn explores the world of insects and arachnids with elementary teacher Byron Webber once a month. Recently, he arrived with some inscrutable black bugs he’d found at the bottom of an oatmeal container. Webber will be Dunn’s guest on her final show, scheduled for Jan. 31.

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