Doing the MOM-bo

It's Wednesday night and I'm sitting at the bar in Café Havana, tipping back a cocktail with a coworker, when I realize it's 7:50 p.m. "MOM-bo," I say to my friend as I sprint out the door, racing to my car to get to the station for the start of the show. At exactly eight bells on KFAI, 90.3 F.M. (that would be 106.7 F.M. for the St. Paul listeners), MOM-bo is heard every Wednesday on the local radio airwaves. I grin when I hear the theme music, and feel an immediate affinity for the program because of the Latin-ness of the name and music. As if the tag line, "a mom show with an attitude," wouldn't be enough to make me dig it.

If you think your daily grind is hectic, sit a spell and watch Nanci Olesen, MOM-bo's host and producer, while she's operating the soundboard. "A half-hour show is really a lot of work," says Olesen. "I used to think it wasn't. I used to think, 'Oh, half an hour? I should have an [hour-long show].' To make good radio for half an hour you need to work your butt off," she assures.

Nanci Olesen is a mother of three/wife/teacher/actor/puppeteer/sax player/window dresser/B.A. in theatre and wilderness studies holder/radio producer. But don't call her a stay-at-home mom. "That's a label society has insisted on applying to those who have chosen to work within the home. I don't think anyone is a 'stay-at-home mom' and I really hate those labels," Nanci explains. "I've done about three or four different shows about the work- and-home dilemma. You know, it's such a stereotyped idea, roles of moms. We all work. There are moms who do more or less outside work. Of course, there's a mom you could easily say is a 'working mom' because she leaves at eight-thirty a.m. and she's back at six p.m."

For her "money job," Nanci does window displays for Baxter's Book Store, and says it's a great mom job. "I take jobs here and there, like an artist in residence from my former life--well, it's not my former life; it's still my life. It's theater and puppetry, the kinds of things I know how to do. But I hope that about a year from now I would say, 'I'm a radio producer.' I already kind of say that, but I still feel a little uncertain saying it."

From 1990 to 1992, Olesen was host and producer of Artifacts (another KFAI program). Late one night, toward the end of her tenure with that show, she decided she needed and wanted to put her energy into something she knew about, to explore things that were important to her personally. Although she loved interviewing interesting people for Artifacts, motherhood was the thing that consumed her, especially new motherhood. I asked her to tell me the story behind the idea and the name of the MOM-bo show.

"Actually, it's sort of a cheesy story, but it's true. The idea came to me in the middle of the night while I was patting my son's back. If I were to think about it more, I would say that it does have to do with a 'dance.' Motherhood is kind of a dance . . . just trying to juggle it all or keep it going."

MOM-bo's format is uniquely personal in a radio genre that's small to begin with. "There seem to be plenty of call-ins--parenting shows that are about how to do 'this,' or 'ask Dr. so-and-so.' This is more about the mom," Nanci explains. The show's tag line, "mom show with an attitude," foretells its tendency toward the sassy, its veering away from the mainstream. "MOM-bo's not mainstream, which is why I want to market it in the public-radio realm. I don't think it would be acceptable commercially. That's not where I live. That's not what I do." And the tag line, says Olesen, is more than an attention grabber. "The attitude is . . . the very most important thing. It's what I would call a 'good night line.' The attitude is, 'You're a mom and you're doing a good job. Don't forget you're doing a good job and take care of yourself. Don't be too sacrificial. Don't take in too much of what the media is trying to give us. There's a lot of cheesy stuff about parenting out there, really cheesy. If you look at the mainstream magazines, you think, 'Who are these women? Where did they come from?'"

Another nonmainstream mom who has the 'tude is MOM-bo's associate producer, Andrea Pearson, one of Nanci's good friends. "Seven years ago in a postpartum support group with our sons--my oldest and Andrea's second son--we met. There were about eight of us who got together with a facilitator from Women's Health Care. I enjoyed it a lot and it really felt good having that kind of support. Andrea and I continued to meet after the seven-week class and I just invited Andrea to read an essay on my show. Then I invited her to read another essay, and then another, and we just kind of carried on from there."  

For a while after Olesen's two youngest children were born, Andrea really carried the torch for MOM-bo. "She didn't have any more kids after her second child, so she was more coherent and I would just get myself to the studio. Now, Andrea really has a full plate, in terms of her own life," says Nanci. Andrea calls herself "the Ed McMahon" to Nanci's "Johnny Carson."

The two women work well together, without necessarily agreeing on all things. "Andrea and I have different opinions, which is really cool. We're really respectful of each others viewpoints, but they're pretty different in a lot of cases."

The MOM-bo show was originally created for and geared toward new mothers, but Nanci says that after six years, they're struggling with that a little. "Because our kids are getting older. My youngest is three and Andrea's youngest is seven. Is the show going to grow-up with our kids, or is it going to stay [focused on new motherhood]? We try to put ourselves back into the newborn. We have a show called 'newborn shock' where we talk about how everything has suddenly changed, 'Why is it that I can't take a shower until four o'clock p.m., what happened to my life?'"

Overall, says Olesen, the show has remained oriented toward the new mom. "But as you become a mom of a grade-schooler, so many things change," she admits. "You move on and you can't even remember the times you forgot the diaper bag, or when you were trying to get the stroller off the escalator, because it's such a foggy time. You just move on--and maybe with some relief, so it's an open question."

Perhaps the parents most "left out" by the show's content are not moms at all, but dads. "There are a couple of men who have called several times or emailed who say, 'This is great! I love it.' However, one man called and said, "I'm really tired of seeing all this stuff about motherhood, I'm a full-time dad at home and I'm really sick of it.' I told him, 'I hear you, but I'm a mom and it comes from me.' A few times on the show I've said, 'If you're a man and you're a dad, we expect that you can translate because we've been translating for years.' When you think about the work-a-day world it's still a male world, so it's a world that women translate; we put ourselves into it and we feel very professional, but we're translating a lot of things all the time. We just do it automatically, as women."

Selections from MOM-bo's program guide reveal a a wide and engaging range of topics: role models for moms, school choice, Early Childhood Family Education, midwifery in Minnesota, structuring work time around kids who are on a summer schedule. But Olesen says there's a lot more to cover. "It's limitless. I haven't explored pregnancy loss--the loss of a baby when you're eight months pregnant and you have to deliver the baby stillborn. It's touchy and I don't know how to do it. The harder issues: divorce . . . there are many kids who are being raised in divorced families, and many divorces happen because of parenthood, or maybe parenthood is the final snap. I'm looking for ways to explore that. We're doing a thing about grandparents. There are a lot of grandparents raising kids now. Teenage moms, there are so many of them, and we try to touch on single-parenthood fairly often. Some times it's almost obnoxious because there are so many times I think 'I should do a show about that.' And then you say, 'Oh, I don't know. I don't think I need to do a show about creaky gates at the end of the sidewalk.'"

Though she doesn't declare any topic strictly off-limits, Olesen acknowledges some as more prickly than others, and cites vaccination as an example. "I would discuss it, but it's trickier; you have to sort of feel out the subject. I don't think there's much I wouldn't discuss . . . because you need that kind of support and conversation about anything that's hard. But sometimes it's difficult to figure out what to say about it."

The most predictable thing about the MOM-bo show is the source of Nanci's ideas: her children. "What they do drives me crazy, or it makes me really happy, or it makes me confused or it makes me cry. They give me the ideas." It's a good thing, too, because without any funding from KFAI or any other outside sources, ideas have to come cheap. "There is no research staff. I'm it," says Olesen, who constructed the contents of the show's press kit with free help from a graphic-artist friend who developed the MOM-bo logo. Nanci answers the phones, writes the program guides, does the photocopying, and stuffs, licks, and the mails the envelopes herself. KFAI pays the postage. "I would like to get grants, but I don't have anyone who writes for me; I could use someone!" she exclaims. "If I could have someone calling the mailing list, someone putting the program guides up at coffee shops every three months, I could keep somebody employed. Answering phones, sending tapes out, sending press kits . . . but I do all that. MOM-bo is broadcasting school to me now and by the time all my kids are in school, I want to be making money doing this job. It's not going to be an illustrious living, but it'll be money."  

Presently, Olesen puts in about ten to fifteen hours a week producing the show. "In the earlier days, it was very seat-of-our-pants, kind of immediate radio, kind of like, 'Hi, we're here, here's a song,'" recalls Olesen. But more recently, her long-term radio-career aspirations have motivated her toward a more comprehensive and time-consuming approach. "It's gotten to the obsession point," she admits, "which I think happens with small businesses. I'm a little bit out of my mind, which is good. It's very healthy, to me anyway, because that's kind of how I operate. I plan to have MOM-bo heard out in the world, get it out there more. I do love my domestic life, but in the last year I can feel that I've gotten really obsessed by [the show]."

Healthy as it may be, Olesen is trying to calm her obsession--at least a little. "Right before I went to the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Conference [in mid-March of this year], I was up until three a.m. for three nights in a row, getting the press kits together to bring there. I wanted to be able to meet people and hand them a press kit." And as reward for Olesen's sacrifice of sleep, she returned from the Washington D.C.-based event with a "special merit" award for MOM-bo.

Professional recognition is gratifying, but positive listener response elicited by the show is also important to Nanci. "It's good to hear how much someone enjoys the show, because you put all this energy into what you're doing and sometimes you wonder 'Is anyone really listening?' I used to work in theater, and after a show, you know if the audience liked the performance; they're either clapping or they're not; they come up to you, or not, so you'd get an immediate idea."

When listeners do call or write to praise the show, Olesen says it's usually to express gratitude for "striking a chord." Not many women are willing to openly express their frustrations about motherhood; most moms are concerned about how they'll look if they assert their true feelings. But Nanci doesn't hesitate to mix it up, on the air or in print. Recently, she asserted her own true feelings about getting out the door with her children in her first published piece--appearing in the May issue of HipMama. As long as the feelings keep coming, she plans to carry on. How long on the MOM-bo show?

"Forever," she says. "I feel like it's my niche. You know how Erma Bombeck found this thing she was going to do, and now, when we think of Erma Bombeck, we put her with those silly little stories that sometimes have this sentimental feeling to them? Not that I want to be the new Erma Bombeck. There are people who just find what they want to do. I found my path."

Julia L. Ramirez is a St. Paul writer. Her article, "Kool-Aid Mom,"appeared in the September issue of Minnesota Parent.

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