Dakota Air rides again: Live radio returns to Valley City

The Times-Record recently chatted with “Dakota Air: The Radio Show” producer and host Merrill Piepkorn about his show’s return to Valley City as part of pre-Winter Show weekend festivities.

Dakota Air will bring its band of traveling troubadours and comedians to Vangstad Auditorium Sunday, March 4, at 3 p.m.

Times-Record: How did you come up with the idea for “Dakota Air”?
Merrill Piepkorn: Dakota Air is an idea I’d been kicking around in my head for 15 or 20 years. It’s the idea of doing a live, old-fashioned radio show with music, comedy and fun designed for both a radio and live audience.

I got together with a couple of friends at Prairie Airwaves, we rounded up sponsors and venues, and in September of 2010 we did our very first show at Vangstad Auditorium in Valley City. Between now and then, we’ve done 17 shows, and now the word has spread and people are requesting the show come to their town.

T-R: How does a radio variety show fit into the modern entertainment landscape?

Piepkorn: Our local attendance and popularity have really taken off, and social media like Facebook has made the show more accessible. The business is much more viable than it was in the past, and now we’re at that break-even stage. It’s very rewarding.

We rely heavily on our radio audience. We perform the show live and record it, then it takes seven to ten days to turn it around, and we broadcast it statewide on Prairie Public radio.

The local stations around the state have also been playing the show back, and we have archived editions available online anytime.

We did a show in Hopkins, Minnesota, and everyone who attended, even though they don’t get Prairie Public radio, was able to go back and listen online. It’s nice to have that online presence. We’re incorporating new technology to connect, spread the word, and find a new audience. It’s always a question of ‘How can we grow?’

T-R: What can audience members expect during a Dakota Air performance?
Piepkorn: A big part of the show is our own entertainment, like the Radio Stars Band. Our fiddle player Loy Larson is often a crowd favorite. Everybody loves Loy, they enjoy hearing him play “Orange Blossom Special”.

We also have our own original comedy skits, performed by the Airheads Radio Acting Company. It’s tougher to write comedy that is family oriented. It is easier to get a laugh with blue language, but our comedian, writer, and historian Steve Stark does a great job.

Here at the Winter Show, we’re going to rely on the stories and the history of the Winter Show to provide material for our sketches and comedy.

We bring a lot, we can put on a great show by ourselves. We’re a lot like the weather, if you don’t like what’s going on, just wait 5 minutes.

T-R: Where do you find your performers and on-air talent?

Piepkorn: Sometimes I go out and get people, but often we rely on local tips. If I don’t know the local area, we’ll just ask around.

One of the real joys of producing this show has been bringing local and regional talent to the audience and exposing our radio and live audiences to new, young talent they haven’t seen or heard before.
I’ve been looking for an opportunity to use (acoustic trio Tucker’d Out, from Fargo,) in a show because they’re so good.

For the Valley City show, we also have western poet Elizabeth Ebert, from Lemmon, South Dakota, who is in her 80s. That’s exciting to be able to showcase her. She’s got the heart and energy of a teenager, and she is one of the country’s premier western poets. I’ve got this venue, this radio show that’s just perfect for what she does. This style of entertainment also fits in with the tradition of the Winter Show.

T-R: What is the best part of having a traveling radio show?

Piepkorn: It’s terrific, we perform in a lot of historic venues around the region. Vangstad Auditorium is perhaps the most historic of all, and it’s an honor to be in that room where so many events have taken place. It’s neat that we’re able to help kick off the opening week of Winter Show with a historical, lighthearted perspective.”