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Sisters with a friendly connection

March 20, 2005|DAVID SHAW

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.

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