Thirty Years of Powerful Voices

| By Susan Lachmann |

“I hear in my mind all of these voices
I hear in my mind all of these words
I hear in my mind all of this music
And it breaks my heart, it breaks my heart …”

Lyrics from Regina Spector, Fidelity — Current ‘sign on’ for Women On Air

Susan Lachmann from Women On Air

Here is March, 2017, and I am thinking about time: how it is mutable, with varying speed from rocket blast velocity to glacier melting ‘slow-mo’ plus every variation in between. It is close to planting time and seed catalogs, marked with sticky notes and dog-ears, are on the nightstand. Then I realize: it’s been thirty years: Thirty YEARS. Thirty years since the power of women’s music infused my auditory palette with riveting sound and sensibility. I had no way of knowing then how empowering this format would become.

The year was 1987, the station was WETS, an NPR affiliate in northeast Tennessee, and the show was Women On Air. The playlist was, in radio speak, ‘AAA’: adult alternative acoustic. My first exposure to the show resides indelibly in episodic memory: It was a warm, sunny afternoon; I was sitting by the stereo at a friend’s home, high up on a hilltop overlooking Buffalo Mountain. Dressed in my off-work ‘uniform’ of overalls and tee shirt, sipping from a mug of hot black coffee, I heard voices like none I had ever heard before.

Announcer Louise Vahle identified those voices as Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-female acapella group from Washington, DC. Their sound was potent, pure and powerful. Powerful like ‘enough to move a mountain’ powerful – like ‘get out the way or you’ll get yourself hurt’ powerful. As if tagged ‘exactly what you need right now,’ this sound potion moved into me like some concentrated restorative.

With musical inclination a dominant characteristic on both sides of my family gene pool, I was hard-wired for sound and identified early as a girl-with-guitar-sing-around-the campfire type. Mom was a singer who infused family meals with happy music as she sang along with popular radio tunes, something ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ style. Dad, a trumpet player with an ear for dance band arrangements and Mitch Miller choral works, conducted freely with index finger, one handed. All this to say music was a language I was born knowing, and a familiar way of communicating. So, when I was offered the opportunity to host and produce Women On Air five years after first hearing the show, it was an easy yes. “Uh-oh” followed quickly right behind it – like, what did I just get myself into?

Finding good music was never a problem, as the women’s music movement was well established by the 1990s. Feminist musicians were not only writing and performing their own music, they were handling the production, distribution, and marketing as well. The vibe was all about independence, capability, self-determination and sisterhood. The music was positive, powerful, and proactive with themes centered around social justice and leveling gender divides. It was also about women loving women, living openly as lesbians and claiming the right to live authentically.

Being immersed in this music every week was a sort of bathing and coming out clean for me, letting lots of social and cultural expectations loose and down the drain. Sending the songs of Holly Near, Chris Williamson, Margie Adam and Sweet Honey in the Rock out into the airwaves was both informing and cathartic. I, with my curly perm and nose ring, felt driven to keep the playlist on fire with these voices. My own loud and clear ‘hell yeah’ came from leaving a controlling, demoralizing marriage with two young children in the wake of a house fire that destroyed nearly everything. It was my exodus, and I was finding my own voice again.

It was during these electric times that Women On Air broadcast during Friday lunch drive time, a high exposure time slot in radio land. University women wrote me to say they packed a lunch rather than be out in their cars lest they miss part of the show; countless other women at home and at work found a way to catch the broadcast which aired only once a week. The playlist expanded with more artists and activists, including Melissa Etheridge, KD Lang, Ani DiFranco, Annie Lennox as well as many independent and lesser known label artists including Disappear Fear, Catie Curtis, Dar Williams, Terri Hendrix and more. I consciously chose empowering voices while avoiding pop culture tunes still stuck in a track identifying women as objects and in subservient, submissive roles. There was a time when I was accused of having a “radical feminist agenda” for Women On Air. Like that’s a bad thing? In third and fourth-wave feminism?

The studio has always been a place of alchemy and magic where I create and craft with sound. This includes the crafting and development of my own voice throughout 30 years of change and adaptation. When I took my place as host and producer of Women On Air, I was spinning vinyl and editing 10” analog tape reels using the cut and splice method. Now with digital technology, the show broadcasts five times weekly on three NPR affiliate channels, all available to listen on line in real time. See broadcast schedule and links to listen live at:

The WOA mission remains steadfast in providing a platform to promote, support, and illuminate women’s voices with a playlist that includes music, and interviews with musicians, authors, health practitioners, professionals in esoteric arts, students, activists, and entrepreneurs. The interview archives are full of primary source material from regional, national, and international artists, including but not limited to: Ysaye Barnwell from Sweet Honey in the Rock, Melissa Etheridge, Ani DiFranco, Lee Smith, Lily Tomlin, Odetta, Madeline L’Engle, Emmy Lou Harris, Mary Gauthier, Nikki Giovanni and many others. Anniversary celebration events begin March 25th (see ad) and will continue throughout 2017 with the goal to raise fun and funds to support both a print and an audio collection documenting women’s history. What began as short segments of ‘fill music’ in between other programming has evolved into a continuing movement bringing power to women’s voices.

See broadcast schedule and links to listen live at:

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker