May 24, 2018
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Northern Exposure, Maine-style: Solon woman creates world for weekly radio show

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Annie Stillwater Gray is the host of the General Store Variety Show in the studio of the Skowhegan-based radio station WXNZ.
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By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Every week, radio listeners around Maine and beyond find their coziest chairs and settle in for an hourlong visit to Angel’s Notch, a make-believe hamlet tucked into the mountains on the border of Maine and Canada.

But Angel’s Notch really exists somewhere else entirely: the fertile imagination of Annie Stillwater Gray, who has been producing The General Store radio show with her husband, Andy Wendell, out of their home in Solon since the spring of 2000.

“It’s set in a beautiful, kind of mysterious valley in the mountains on the border,” Gray said. “And Andy and I run the general store. I like people to feel like they’re escaping, when they come to the general store. I talk about the beauty of it, the light on the snow, the tracks of the animals. I’d just as soon keep it really beautiful and pristine for everybody. After all, it’s my world. I can make it whatever I want.”

And she does. The writer, musician and radio personality has created a tight-knit community populated by eccentric, good-hearted neighbors as well as more unexpected visitors — including gods and magical beings — who drop by the general store for coffee and conversation. The story has developed over the years through a radio script that is performed by Gray, Wendell, and a host of their actual neighbors and friends, who gather once a month or so to record several weeks’ worth of scripts in one go. On the show, the unfolding story of Angel’s Notch is punctuated by an eclectic selection of songs from all genres and all eras, ranging from the 1920s to the 2000s.

The show can be heard at 1 p.m. Sundays on WERU in East Orland (89.9 and 102.9); 6 p.m. Fridays on WMHB in Waterville (89.7); 9 a.m. Saturdays and 5 p.m. Wednesdays on WXNZ-LP in Skowhegan (98.1); 9 a.m. Sundays on WKTJ in Farmington (99.3) and 11 a.m. Sundays on WRGY in Rangeley (99.3). It also can be heard at 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WRFA in Jamestown, New York (107.9). It can be streamed online at WERU, WMHB, WRFA and WRGY during the show’s broadcast time slot on each station.

Gray has compared Angel’s Notch to Cicely, Alaska, the fictional home of the 1990s television show “Northern Exposure,” and has heard it likened to Lake Woebegon, made famous by Garrison Keillor’s radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“I always say, yeah, ‘A Prairie Home Companion from a woman’s point of view,’” Gray said.

She got her start in radio in the 1970s when she worked as a DJ on a commercial radio station in Connecticut, then moved to Maine where she had more freedom working first at WBLM, at that time broadcast in Sabattus, and then at WTOS in Skowhegan. Still, Gray yearned for a simpler kind of radio show, and she and Wendell came up with the idea for The General Store in the late 1990s.

“We wanted to do a radio serial with a sense of place,” she said.

They pitched their idea to the program director at WERU and The General Store quickly found its first home.

“We really don’t have anything else like it,” said Matt Murphy, general manager of the community radio station. “From its start, The General Store provided positive story lines to follow and great musical selections for accompaniment.”

Writing a radio serial seems to come naturally to Gray, but it hasn’t always been easy. She struggled when an actor who played a main character quit suddenly, and she had to figure out what direction the story should take. Listeners — who don’t always know that Angel’s Notch is fictional — called WERU wondering where he had gone. Ultimately, Gray had a private eye find the errant character in a monastery in Canada, where he had conveniently taken a vow of silence and could no longer talk.

“It’s gotten a lot easier,” she said of making the show. “The first year we didn’t have a social life, and now the show is our social life. We have friends over to play music and tell stories.”

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