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Turn on, tune in

KOSU hybrid radio show celebrates Tulsa-connected creative treasures

Julie Watson and Scott Bell of “Tune in Tulsa”

Greg Bollinger

Imagine a series of concentric circles. On the inside ring, there’s someone singing a song. Then someone leaning in, listening to that song on a record. Then a few folks gathered around a mic, talking about the record, maybe how they changed when they first heard it. Then, on the outside ring, even more people sitting around their radios, listening through the frequencies of the airwaves to the frequency of the heart.

Imagine all these people connected to the same sounds for the same hour, through the same city’s million strands of stories. That’s the premise of “Tune in Tulsa,” a project started last year by KOSU radio (107.5 FM). Headed by Kelly Burley and based in Oklahoma City, the station, which airs NPR programming and independent Oklahoma music outlets like The Spy FM, expanded its footprint into this part of the state by creating its first flagship in-house program centered on folks with roots in or connections to Tulsa.

The hour-long show airs once a week, Sundays at 5 p.m. CST. Unlike a podcast, a radio show is ephemeral: If you miss it, you miss it. (The show can be streamed from anywhere, though, via KOSU’s website: kosu.org/programs/tune-tulsa.) Hosted by writer and Tulsa Roots Music co-director Julie Watson, engineered by Guthrie Green/A Gathering Place lead audiovisual technician Scott Bell, and produced by John Cooper of Red Dirt Rangers fame, it’s an unusual hybrid: part interview, part conversation, and part idiosyncratic mixtape.

Its first season’s guests included John Fullbright, Tim Blake Nelson, and Sterlin Harjo, who were invited to create an eight-song playlist to anchor wide-ranging discussions about their personal lives, careers, and Tulsa memories. The second season starts April 1 and features 13 episodes that will be rebroadcast over the summer.

“As we were going through the planning process for ‘Tune in Tulsa,’ we really wanted to amplify the city’s sense of place and felt the best way to do that was through the voices of the creative talents that either live in Tulsa, have roots in the city, or are connected to it through their careers,” said Burley, who grew up here.

“If you think of all the people you’d like to talk to with a Tulsa connection, you might think you’d run out at maybe 50,” Bell said. “But you’d be absolutely wrong. We could veer into music nerdery with just having drummers and lifers on the show. But we try to make sure those connections push into actors, directors, sports people, business folks—the idea being that music is a common language among people.”

“We want to hear the stories that connect to the songs,” Watson said. Listeners might be surprised by what they hear from people whose names they know so well. (Turns out Tim Blake Nelson is massively influenced by Tom Waits—something that makes sense the instant he says it.)

“You can get totally different stories from people when you’re not necessarily talking about business with the business person or politics with the politician,” Bell said. “Instead you’re talking about music, and that really puts them in a different space. You get this vector that is sort of indirect that most interviews are not going to contain. Somehow there’s a humanities-oriented side to these interviews.”

The mix of Watson’s well-informed enthusiasm and the warm sonic tone that Bell creates makes for an hour of tuning in that feels like sitting in a living room with someone, listening to records together. Its intimacy makes space for tender emotions and unexpected revelations around the very personal, sometimes eccentric mix of music.

“We play the songs they’ve chosen in real time, with them in there,” Bell said. “If you weren’t doing that, they’d get more abstract and it would be dry. It’s never cold in that room.”

Watson noted that “Tune in Tulsa” functions not just as a kind of in-the-moment archive (a notable addition to a town where archives are becoming significant cultural real estate), but also as an ambassador for Tulsa stories to the wider world.

“I want this to be a way for Tulsans to appreciate what’s here,” she said. “And when we have a guest who has a national reach, I want people outside the city to hear how much that person loves Tulsa or how connected they are to it, so they can understand what we have here too.”

The new season features guests like Eric Marshall of Marshall Brewery, drummers George Sluppick and Jamie Oldaker, artist Minisa Crumbo, and Jim Halsey, who made the careers of such performers as Wanda Jackson and James Brown.

“I think it will blow people’s minds, what treasure we have in our city,” Watson said. “You have a sense of just how much there is here that needs to be recorded. Maybe everybody feels this way about their city, but all roads really do lead back to Tulsa, one way or another.”

The songs, the stories, the stream of micro- and macro-histories that have passed through this city throughout the years—none of it gets heard without listening together. Tuning in means hearing who we are.

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