It's Saturday night live--in Salisbury Van Williamson leads audience in cheers, moans and whistles


Salisbury -- Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when Saturday night meant families gathered around listen to the radio . . "Welcome to Radio Free Delmarva. It's not that far from art," quips Van Williamson at 8:01 on a summery Saturday evening. Mr. Williamson is producer and host of Radio Free Delmarva, a live two-hour variety show that is broadcast once a month from WSCL-FM to the Delmarva peninsula. In Caruthers Hall on the campus of Salisbury State University, RFD also has a near-capacity studio audience of about 150 people.

"You'll be required to come out with some exhortations during the broadcast," Mr. Williamson warns the crowd before the program begins. As his wife, Allison, holds up cue cards, they demonstrate that they can applaude, cheer, moan, growl and even bark on demand.

Over the next two hours, their scripted exhortations as well as their spontaneous reactions will form the aural background for -- Radio Free Delmarva's live folk and classical music, environmental commentary, musical theater, comedy and the concluding chapter of "Bif Delmar, Detective at Sea," an old-fashioned radio serial.

"I think they're clever and funny," says Mary Ogle of Salisburywho came to Saturday's show with Lynn Cathcart. Ms. Ogle says her favorite parts of Radio Free Delmarva are the serial and the variety of music. Both women say they look forward to Mr. Williamson's rambling monologues.

"It's live radio," says Mr. Williamson, "if you're going to make a fool of yourself, you can't go back and erase it." That's a risk he and the other RFD Players are willing to take.

"I like being on the spot," he confides. "I think you really grow when you're on the spot. It's kind of like the show is careening out of control. At 5 of 8, I know it's all going to come together. Or maybe it isn't."

Sound effects technician Greg Roach, who flawlessly delivered 28 bells, whistles and arcade noises for last Saturday's episode of "Bif Delmar," got the script at 3 p.m. on show day. It was delivered with a stack of cassettes, cartridges and CDs that Mr. Williamson had collected with the sounds needed to make the peninsula detective spoof come to life.

The actors get even less time to prepare. They first saw the script for Saturday's broadcast at a 4 p.m. read-through on the Caruthers Hall stage. Less than five hours later, they were performing it on the air.

"Everybody who gets involved has such a good time that we don't get nervous," says Brenda Miller, 29, who played all the female supporting voices in the Bif Delmar serial. "Most of us don't think about the radio audience until we get home and listen to ourselves on tape."

The RFD Players range from Robin Cockey, president of the Salisbury City Council, to 12-year-old Kate Jackson, a budding actress who was written in after she called Mr. Williamson to ask for an audition.

"Radio Free Delmarva grew out of a live jazz program created in October 1989 by Mr. Williamson, who also is WSCL's full-time news director. He wanted to fill a slot on the station's Saturday night schedule and to provide an outlet for himself and other local musicians to perform.

"As a musician, I know it's much more interesting to play in front of a live audience instead of just on the radio," says Mr. Williamson, 46, who has played folk, bluegrass and jazz music professionally for the past 20 years. So he began to invite friends in to watch the performances.

Over the next several months he added poetry, commentary and criticism. But the program really came together when he and his long-time friend Jack Purdy, a Baltimore writer, penned their first serial, "Shore Thing."

"It was really pretty good," he recalls of the story of a mad scientist who invents a car-sized mutant rockfish. "It was kind of dumb in a way, but that's what we were aiming for."

Serious subjects make their way onto Radio Free Delmarva, but they're viewed through the gentle perspective of humor. Environmentalist-author Tom Horton (and former Sun reporter) appeared on Saturday night's show less than a week after he raised a huge local stir by suggesting a three-year moratorium on oyster harvesting. On RFD, he and Mr. Williamson assumed the roles of two Chesapeake Bay jellyfish who ponder the usefulness of human beings.

"There's a good-hearted silliness to it that's enchanting," says Nancy Pyle of Preston. She and her husband, Douglas, brought their children to see Radio Free Delmarva Saturday night.

"It has a kind of home-grown quality," says Mr. Pyle, who predicts a growing audience for the show. "There's a cult for it. Someday maybe we're going to say we saw it when it was local."

The next edition of Radio Free Delmarva is set to air Aug. 17. "Bif Delmar, Detective at Sea," has concluded, but Mr. Williamson and Mr. Purdy already are contemplating their next multipart adventure.

"It's kind of an old-fashioned thing to do," admits Mr. Williamson. "We have live music, political commentary, comedy. It fulfills a lot of urges that I have for communicating with people."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad