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Radio days

Education | Homeschoolers' twist on real-life drama takes top prize

Issue: "Houses divided," June 3, 2006

A radio crackles and an official-sounding man issues a shocking report: "Hallam is gone . . . I repeat, Hallam is gone."

So goes one climactic moment in "The Hallam Tornado," an original radio play that took first place in the 2006 Make-Your-Own-Radio-Show Contest, a competition sponsored by Homeschoolradioshows.com. The winning entry, written and produced by the Claesson family of Lincoln, Neb., dramatizes the terror and aftermath of a record-setting Nebraska twister.

On May 22, 2004, a reported 18 tornadoes stormed down from boiling Nebraska skies. But the one that hit the farming town of Hallam, population 235, was the most vicious. Measured at 2.5 miles wide and at times reaching an intensity of F4-207 to 269 mph, according to the Fujita Damage Scale-the funnel was reportedly the largest ever to hit the United States. It bit off the corners of several small towns, but wiped Hallam nearly from the map. The storm flattened homes, mangled grain elevators, blew over buses and railcars, and shredded Hallam's business district into kindling. One person, Elaine Focken, 73, a lifelong homemaker, was killed.

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"We live close to Hallam, and remember the night of the tornado," said Marcia Claesson, who teamed with her daughters Carmen, 13, and Monica, 11, and her husband, Evert, to research, write, and perform the program that dramatized the storm. "It turned out to be a more powerful story than we expected."

First, the Claessons dug into the history of the storm, unearthing online articles and a firsthand account written by tornado-spotter and volunteer fireman Corey Campbell. The Claessons also toured Hallam to understand more fully what happened on the night of the storm, a trip Monica said was the most rewarding part of the project. Mr. Claesson recorded the family's performance complete with sound effects-whipping winds, crashing glass, rescue workers' buzz saws, a crowd of survivors-on a home computer.

In "The Hallam Tornado" (a click-and-listen MP3 file is available at the contest website at Homeschoolradioshows.com), two young girls hunker in the basement of their home while the tornado rages outside.

"The hardest thing was making the screams sound right when we weren't actually scared," said Carmen, the older Claesson daughter. "We had to do them about five times over because they didn't sound right."

In the recorded drama, rescue workers arrive to free the girls and take them to one of the few structures left standing, a bank building where the people of Hallam actually sought shelter from the storm. The show ends on a note of hope: Birds chirp in the background as the girls attend an outdoor church service at which the congregation sings a doxology and the pastor preaches an uplifting message about rebuilding.

"In any given congregation there is usually someone whose singing is, well, challenged," Mr. Claesson said. "I supplied [that] effect."

Among about 40 entries, "The Hallam Tornado" stood out "because it drew the listener in," said contest sponsor Jim Erskine of Canmer, Ky. "Our judges chose this program because of the gripping story, emotional intensity, and vivid sound portrayal of this true event."

Mr. Erskine, 50, is a longtime collector of old radio programs-everything from "The Shadow" and Jack Benny to dramatizations of historical events and literary classics. About six years ago, he and his wife, Susan, set up Homeschoolradioshows.com to share their collection with others. Each week, the site features a different free program, focusing on educational fare-biographies of George Washington or Benjamin Franklin, for example, or dramatizations of classic works by such authors as Twain or Dickens.

"Kids may not be anxious to wade into those dense, thick books, but [the shows] give them a flavor of what the stories are about," Mr. Erskine said.

Many families have written to the Erskines to say that the decades-old radio dramas sparked their children's interest enough to want to dive into the print versions of formidable works.

"A lot of families like listening to these kinds of shows because their kids are using their imaginations," Mr. Erskine said. "There's an active participation going on as opposed to kids being passively entertained by video."

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