Marie Norkett and Michael Ellis

Marie Norkett, a student at Morgan Park Academy (MPA), works on a podcast project that will be distributed to senior citizens as teacher Michael Ellis looks on. The school is collaborating with Make Grandma Smile on the project, and senior citizens are producing a show that they will send to MPA. (photo by Diego Martirena, Morgan Park Academy)

Morgan Park Academy (MPA) students are combining new-age technology with old-fashioned entertainment to provide senior citizens with smiles and laughter.

As part of a radio/podcasting class, MPA students are teaming up with Make Grandma Smile, a Chicago therapy and technology organization, to create an old-fashioned radio show that will be sent to senior citizens around the city who are in assisted-living homes. Those seniors are also producing similar shows to be sent to MPA students.

The final performances are scheduled to be completed by mid-April, and MPA sophomore Kaleb Bandele is looking forward to their debut.

“It feels good to give back to seniors, especially during COVID,” Bandele said. “They might not be able to see relatives. So, it’s nice to give them something, some form of entertainment.”

MPA teacher Michael Ellis is overseeing the project. Under pandemic-free circumstances, the class would host live radio shows in a station. But, unable to gather that closely, students are now turning to “the golden age of radio,” he said, to produce a podcast, which people can listen to at any time.

They’re performing stand-up comedy bits from the 1950s and ’60s, as well as songs from 30 or 40 years ago.

The show will be distributed to seniors who are part of Make Grandma Smile, and producers are hoping that local residents want to gain access. They also hope more shows will be produced in the future.

Ellis said MPA provides a curriculum focused on how students can use what they’ve learned to help others, and this project will benefit senior citizens.

“A lot of them can’t see family,” Ellis said. “It kind of reminds them of a friend they used to have on the old radio.”

Bandele is editing the project and providing content, playing wholesome, popular stand-up bits from Carol Burnett and Rodney Dangerfield. He’s an avid fan of stand-up comedy, and he’s excited to make people happy during a time they might be isolated and alone.

“I always play things for friends,” Ellis said. “I thought it would be interesting to hear jokes from comedians who I wasn’t alive when they were popular. I just thought it would be interesting … for seniors, to hear comedians from when they were younger.”

MPA senior Rachel Sheppard is taking a “Friends” theme with her contribution. She’s adding clips from the TV show “Friends,” which was popular in the 1990s, and using comedy to show how people cope with the highs and lows of friendships.

If she can provide a bright spot in senior citizens’ day or week, she said, “It means a lot to me.”

Make Grandma Smile Founder Jason Heidel plays in a Motown band with Ellis and said his organization works with hundreds of senior citizens. He said his clients want to “be the star” of some endeavor and find purpose in their later years.

Producing the shows fits the bill.

“The 65- and 75-year-olds, they want that experience,” Heidel said. “They want to feel like they’re part of the show.”

Ellis said students are also learning about the evolution of radio. Television and film overtook radio in popularity, and live radio isn’t as popular these days with the emergence of streaming services that make programming such as podcasts available more frequently.

However, podcasts also have a touch of old-fashioned radio with their simplicity.

“The podcast is pretty much back to the original days of radio,” Ellis said, “with a radio show being produced by the one or two different people in one room. … So, the students get to hear how it was and are already to the point where it cycles back to that idea again.”

He hopes the MPA production reminds senior citizens of listening to early radio shows such as “The Lone Ranger.”

More importantly, he just hopes the effort makes them smile.

He referred to the slogan that Make Grandma Smile uses in providing some friendly advice for senior citizens.

“You’re never too old to have fun.”