On-Air Mom

Her struggle is no different than a lot of active mothers and fathers -- how to be a good parent while keeping alive her own interests and creativity.

That tension has driven her for the past 10-plus years to produce and host MOM-bo -- "a mom show with an attitude" -- at KFAI radio.

"The whole show is about how to balance your life," said Olesen. "I have to do it too.

It seems like a tired old theme, but it is the main thing people are trying to do.

"At the end of the show, I always say, 'Love your kids. Be good to yourself. Talk to you next week.' That kind of stuff --the 'be good to yourself' part -- is just like, 'remember who you are.'"

Olesen puts in full-time hours some weeks to produce MOM-bo, but like all of KFAI's on-air personalities, she is a volunteer.

Her show has slowly built a reputation. Pacifica Radio Network has carried it since 1997, and it now airs in six other cities, from KIDE in Hoopa, Calif., to CFMH in St. John, New Brunswick.

In 2000, Olesen won the Silver Reel Award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters for a show called "When a Baby Dies."

She created a non-profit for MOM-bo last year to help raise money. She has received $5,000 from the Women's Foundation of Minnesota and $3,000 from the Oswald Foundation, she said.

Her husband, Stephen Epp, is one of the artistic directors for Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Olesen gets some money from doing radio commentaries for public radio shows like Word of Mouth or the Savvy Traveler, but she also works for a caterer to help pay the bills.

She said she hopes that might change."A number of times, I've thought, 'OK, this is my last [catering job], I'm not doing it again, either because I am tired or because I think MOM-bo is going to work now,'" Olesen said.

A MOM-bo history

Olesen has always had a passion for radio, she said. A little more than a decade ago, she did an internship with Minnesota Public Radio.

Euan Kerr, a reporter for MPR and a friend and fan of Olesen's, recalled a tape -- a series of interviews with children for MPR -- she had sent him early in her radio career. Kerr, who moved home to Scotland for a few years in the early 1990s, first listened to the tape during a stroll in Glasgow.

"I was walking along the Great Western Road in the heart of Glasgow, hearing these marvelous voices," he said. "It is very hard to get children to sound natural on the radio. It was extraordinary. I remember walking along in the cold towards the BBC thinking, 'How do we do something like this?'"

Even before that, Olesen had started to volunteer at KFAI, cohosting a show called Artifacts.

"Henry was little, teeny-weeny little like 8 months old," she said. "I would stay up really late preparing for interviews of these artists, dancers and getting ready for the show. I was trying to get Henry to go to sleep in the middle of the night, patting him on the back. I was going, 'I am doing the wrong show. I should be reporting about this.'"

"That is when I decided I wanted to do MOM-bo," she said.

The show started monthly in 1990, then went weekly a year later, she said. Friend Andrea Pearson was an assistant producer for four years, and "the rock of the show," but Olesen now does it solo.

It wasn't until four or five years ago that she felt MOM-bo was her calling, Olesen said.

She knew by the amount of time and energy she put into the show.

"I would get my sister to come over and take care of a sick child so I could get to

the radio station and get on the air," Olesen said. "I felt this drive, this mission -- that what I was experiencing as a mother was interesting and very, very common and that it wasn't being talked about very much."

She got a big break last year when she sold an hour-long special, a MOM-bo Thanksgiving, to PRI, she said. It aired on WBEZ in Chicago and on stations in Cleveland, Dallas and other cities as part of PRI's holiday package.

"I have a lot to do in the next two weeks," she said. "I need to follow up with program directors and thank them for playing it and ask them what they are interested in hearing -- and if they are interested in carrying the weekly show."

For the show itself, she got $500.

"It took me six months to make," she said. "I paid some of that to an assistant producer. The rest was gone long ago."

Betty Tisel, a Kingfield resident and a fan of the show volunteers on the MOM-bo board. She helps with communications and promotional materials.

"I think if the non-profit didn't take off, and [Olesen] didn't start getting some grants, I don't think she would have been able to continue economically," Tisel said. "She couldn't go on forever spending that much time. She has a family with three children and all the same bills you and I have. That is why I wanted to help out."

At the studio

MOM-bo used to have a single theme but has evolved into more of a magazine format to fit in interviews with authors and artists visiting the Twin Cities. Topics range from scheduling exercise, work and alone time to an interview of an all-Mom music group.

On a recent day, Olesen arrived at KFAI's Cedar Riverside studio at 9:30 a.m. to knock out another show.

She has a detailed script typed out and timed out. She can't run over 29 minutes.

The prior week, she had interviewed Fred Wirth, author of Prenatal Parenting, on how to love and nurture an unborn child. The day before, she had done a phone interview with Felice Bochman, a Massachusetts woman who has been painting depictions of her life as a mother of four (with such titles as "South Main Sleep" and "Blue Mom Poop.")

Those interviews take up more than 20 minutes. Olesen and producer Dan Richmond add music and short commentaries to knit the package together.

It times out 7 seconds too long. Richmond makes a few electronic snips and it is set to burn onto CDs and get sent out.

At home

In the post-holiday, pre-return-to-school world, Olesen's kids are spread throughout the house.

Henry is playing air hockey with his buddy Logan. Nora has her nose buried deep into a book, The Reptile Room, and Lene is hanging close to her mom, wiggling a loose tooth with her tongue.

Epp had watched the kids while Olesen got in a walk around Lake Harriet. Now she is back, making plans for the day.

She would like to take Henry to see The Endurance at the Uptown Theatre but thinks the girls are too young to see it, she said. She needs to go grocery shopping and bake bread for a dinner party.

She and Lene start making a large batch of French baguettes; 35 cups of flour will make 16 loaves, she said. She will freeze some.

Olesen sticks her hands in a warm bowl of water to make sure all the yeast clumps are dissolved.

"Did you wash them?" Lene asks.

In an earlier conversation, Olesen said she worried sometimes that outside things like MOM-bo meant time away from her kids. (In the early years, when the show was done live, she would sometimes nurse Lene during the show to keep her from fussing.)

Olesen said things are getting easier now that they are all in school full-time.

"I am very strict about how I work my day," she said. "I like to feel that, at 4 o'clock, what I am doing is being with my kids."

She wants MOM-bo to always return to the joys and frustrations of the new parent, Olesen said.

"You are thrown into being interested in child development and what are the right kind of diapers to buy," she said. "At the same time as you are learning these new things, you are trying to figure out where you went."

Now, her oldest is 11.

"We only have 7 more years," she said. "His childhood is over. I feel like waking him up and asking him, 'Was your childhood good?' It goes so fast."