The "Pleasant Valley Gang" Paved the Way for Today's Live-Streaming Concerts
By Barney McCoy, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Professor
Jan. 25, 2021, 7 a.m. ·
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Thirty-five years ago, the Pleasant Valley Gang, which featured two Nebraska musicians, played their final WIBW radio show in Topeka, Kansas. It was America’s last known live music radio show and the end of an era that once featured hundreds of musicians performing live on radio. Or so one thought until the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vocalist-guitarist Edmund Denny and organist Elsa Schlangen left Nebraska in the late 1930s to play live radio music on WIBW in Topeka, Kansas. St. Louis accordion player Bill Kirk arrived a few years later and the Pleasant Valley Gang was formed.
Four decades of listeners tuned-in from across Kansas every weekday morning for farm news and to hear the Pleasant Valley Gang play until their last show in 1985.
“I always think of the Pleasant Valley Gang as being a prairie group because they felt the prairie and they felt the people in the prairie,” retired WIBW Farm Director Kelly Lenz said.
Lenz hosted the Pleasant Valley Gang’s last show and says he’ll never forget the group’s audience appeal.
Kansas City Jazz musician David Basse said society’s abrupt isolation in the COVID pandemic has sparked a growing interest by audiences suffering from live music withdrawal. Basse hosts a live jazz program on Kansas Public Radio and said the pandemic has helped spur national syndication of his radio program. (Photo Courtesy Kansas Public Radio)
"The appeal is that at 6 o’clock in the morning the audience knows that the world wasn’t as bad as they heard on the 10 o’clock news last night," Lenz said.
"After a while it felt like your extended family," said Michael Keith, a Boston College emeritus professor and broadcasting historian. He says live performers like the Pleasant Valley Gang reminded listeners they had company no matter where they lived.
"You’re out there on the plains and your closest neighbors are 10 miles away. It somehow downsizes the world a little bit and makes it feel a little bit more intimate," Keith said.
The Pleasant Valley Gang and other live music programs like them faded from radio in the 1980s- largely replaced by news and sports talk shows, country, rock, adult and other music formats on radio. Live music programs mostly stayed on the shelf-until the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kansas City Jazz musician David Basse grew up listening to live radio music in rural Nebraska.
"All that stuff that kind of dried up over the past 20-30 years and people moving so fast. All the sudden here we are isolated again," Basse said.
Basse says society’s abrupt isolation in the COVID pandemic has sparked a growing interest by audiences suffering from live music withdrawal. They are reconnecting with live music programs and concerts delivered on radio and streaming services on the internet.
Basse also hosts a live weekday jazz program on Kansas Public Radio. He says the pandemic has spurred national syndication of his live program.
"Now, I’m on 51 stations and I’m on as early as 5 in the morning in Tampa-St. Pete. So, I do a morning show there," Basse said.
With more than three-dozen solo live-streamed concerts in 2020, Kansas singer-writer-musician Kelley Hunt recently streamed a socially distanced Winter Solstice concert with Kansas City bassist James Albright and vocalist Wanda Manier. Hunt and many musicians have turned to producing live-streaming, socially-distanced concerts since the COVID-19 pandemic has kept them from touring on the live concerts circuit. (Photo Courtesy Kelley Hunt.)
Singer, composer, keyboardist Kelley Hunt toured extensively until the pandemic forced the Kansas Music Hall of Famer off the road and shut down the live concert industry last March. Since then, Hunt and thousands of other musicians have sold tickets or taken donations to perform live streaming concerts including one from Hunt’s Lawrence, Kansas home.
"I did it for an hour," Hunt said. "And I went back to look at my phone when it was done. I could not believe. People from all over the world were tuning in. I think we had 9,000 views."
With more than three-dozen solo live-streamed concerts in 2020, Hunt recently streamed a socially distanced Winter Solstice concert with Kansas City bassist James Albright and vocalist Wanda Manier.
"There’s 350 comments during the live stream. There’s people from Belize and Australia and Canada and Topeka. Just all over the place," Hunt said.
Which brings us back to the Pleasant Valley Gang. Broadcast historian Michael Keith says live radio musicians from the past and those today who are streaming live in the COVID pandemic share something in common with their audiences.
"You were reassured that all was right with the world when you were eating your oatmeal in the morning and you heard the Pleasant Valley Gang do their thing," Keith said.
"It’s about reaching out to people, staying connected," Kelly Hunt agreed. "Many of us have friends who have family who have been sick or have died so I wanted that one hour to step away from that and really dig into what I feel like I know and can do best which is music."
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