A typical Friday morning inside the Holly Creek Retirement Community in Centennial, Colorado, sounds like an era from long ago.
“Dick’s Big Band Hour” fills residents’ rooms with the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington. But the program can’t be found on commercial or public radio, because it’s only broadcast inside the senior living center from their in-house radio station.
And the people running it are the residents themselves.
“Now that we have experience on this radio station we’re gonna come down to Colorado Public Radio to see if there’s any openings,” quips 91-year-old Bob Stong, a seven-year resident of Holly Creek.
The station, called HCRK, for Holly Creek Radio, was started four years ago by resident Dick Gustafson, who once worked for radio stations in Vail and Minturn.
“He had a lot of [radio] equipment and a passion for radio,” says Jane Keller, the senior executive director of Holly Creek Retirement Community. “[He asked me], ‘What do you think? Can we turn this into a radio station?’ It was an empty office at the time.”
Keller says it was easy to get off the ground. Gustafson brought in his own turntables and an old reel-to-reel player, and the residents themselves have helped to supply CDs and records.
The station’s signal is transmitted through television sets in residents’ rooms. In addition to the big band show, HCRK has a variety of programming, including a talk show for food lovers, a country-western music program, and old recordings of legendary entertainers like Red Skelton and Bob Hope.
Throughout the day, Holly Creek residents can hear announcements informing them of community events, the day’s weather, and which residents are celebrating birthdays.
“I think about my grandparents. When they were sitting in their kitchen, they had an AM radio right above the kitchen table. And we would listen to it every single morning,” Keller says. “And that’s what the residents are doing.”
There’s also a popular program called “Wanderings,” where Holly Creek residents are asked to share their life stories. The residents get a copy of their interview on a CD, which their families can cherish long after they’re gone.
“People say, ‘I’m not that interesting.’ But you know, they are,” says Priscilla Stenman, one of the hosts of “Wanderings.”
“There is not a person here who does not have a story worth being heard,” she says.
The radio station is kind of like a barber shop, or an old neighborhood diner: a place where residents pop in and talk. That includes Jack Kelly, a funny 82-year-old resident from Brooklyn who does some work behind the mic. He claims to be a, “wonderful boy. My mother’s favorite.”
Kelly says the station provides a community service to many residents who are dealing with the challenges of getting older — health issues and perhaps loneliness. It keeps people company, helps them laugh, and keeps them informed.
“It particularly helps people who are impaired with their sight,” Kelly says. “We have a TV station that announces events for the day, but these people have some difficulty with that.”
The station not only helps the listeners stay engaged, but also the volunteers themselves. Keller says the residents’ volunteer work at the radio station provides “meaning and a purpose” in their lives.
For example, Gustafson is now in his 80s and has Parkinson’s Disease. It’s affected his voice, so he doesn’t do much talking on air these days. But he still stays involved at the radio station, cueing up old vinyl records and CDs during shows.
Stong stays active behind the microphone, which helps him cope with the recent death of his wife of 66 years.
“That’s been one of the big consolations since my wife passed away,” he says. “I’m alone now. But I’ve got a whole bevy of friends here [at the radio station], and who I know in this community.”
And that community is one explanation for why volunteers keep coming back day after day. But there’s another reason, too: The station enables residents to keep their pasts alive by giving them a voice.