Chion Wolf takes public radio and Connecticut by storm
By Allie Rivera
For Chion Wolf, working in public radio is more than a job; it’s a lifelong mission.
Raised listening to NPR, Wolf has worked her way to now hosting and producing her own show, Audacious, on Connecticut Public Radio.
“One of the things I love so much about public radio is that when you listen to it a lot, you become a better interviewer in your own life, you become a better listener,” the Hartford resident says. “So I hope that, if I’m doing this right, after every episode of Audacious, you’ll become more curious, you’ll be braver in the questions that you ask, and you will shut up and listen.”
Wolf’s journey to this point began more than a decade ago while she was working at a T-Mobile. After learning that Connecticut Public was looking for people to answer phones for their latest fundraising drive, Wolf immediately reached out. There, she met radio news veteran John Dankosky, who was news director at the time.
“I just started machine-gunning questions at him,” Wolf recalls, laughing. “He was like, ‘It sounds like you might be interested in our internship program.’”
Once her time in that program began, Wolf says, her next mission was to make sure it didn’t end.
“As soon as I started, I tried to find a way to make it so they couldn’t get rid of me,” she says with a smile.
Starting with her own small, point-and-shoot camera, Wolf began photographing shows, guests, and events at Connecticut Public and pitched the idea of being the photographer for the radio station, a concept which was initially met with some confusion.
“It was difficult to explain in 2007,” she says, shaking her head. Undeterred, she pushed forward and helped develop the station’s photojournalism section.
As Wolf continued with Connecticut Public, her role began to grow. She started learning more about producing and editing, but a big shift came when she began working with Colin McEnroe.
“He said he wanted me to be the first and last voice people hear on his show, which is an awfully amazing thing to hear for a goofy, NPR nerd, freelance intern,” she says. “That changed everything.”
Wolf sharpened her skills working on the show, becoming the producer and technical producer, as well as offering her voice on air during the show.
“I think she developed a strong name for herself and it, of course, helped that she was the announcer on the Colin McEnroe show, so she would get name recognition on his show for years,” says Catie Talarski, now senior director of storytelling and radio programming at Connecticut Public Radio.
Talarski, who started at the station around the same time as Wolf, was not surprised to see her colleague and friend moving up the ranks.
“I think she just has a way of diving into things and just 100 percent putting herself into them,” Talarski says.
While working to build a name for herself at Connecticut Public, Wolf also began working on her own projects around Hartford, following her passions in whichever way they pulled.
“Chion has these ideas and, unlike a lot of people, she decides to follow through on them,” says Joe Barber, a longtime friend who has helped in a variety of Wolf’s projects. “For someone with so many ideas and to see them come to fruition is really impressive.”
“I don’t know where she gets all the energy or the ability to focus on all these different things,” says Barber, who is director of community service and civic engagement at Trinity College. “When she gets enthusiastic about something, she really digs into it, and that’s what she’s been doing with all of her different projects.”
The two initially met roughly 10 years ago through burgeoning storytelling events in Hartford, one of which was Wolf’s personal project, “The Mouth-Off.” Having originally pitched the idea for a storytelling show at Connecticut Public, which didn’t work out, Wolf brought the event to another Hartford landmark.
“I thought, right down the street is the Mark Twain House, [home to] one of the best-known storytellers in American history. What a great spot to have it! And so I approached them,” Wolf says. “They said, ‘Hell yes,’ and it went for eight years before the pandemic.”
The events were held five times per year, each time with a different theme that Wolf created. Unlike other storytelling events, however, Wolf did not work with storytellers in advance or coach them on their performances. Most times, her reactions were as raw as the audience’s, and while not all stories made it into the final show, Wolf said she was in awe of what she encountered.
“Many of the stories would leave you breathless, and I wondered how they did that,” she marvels. “What made those stories different? What made me still think about them days, weeks later? So I started learning a lot about storytelling and then I started becoming a better storyteller.”
While these projects helped Wolf follow her passions, they also helped her to sharpen her skills. As a big fan of AM radio and call-in shows, Wolf came up with the idea in 2016 to start her own live advice show.
“Being live is a totally different headspace and ball game than when it’s pre-taped. Audacious is totally pre-taped, so I can fumble my questions. I could talk to the person for an hour and a half and only show you the bits that are the most glimmering or interesting or powerful. Whereas when you have a time limit and you’ve got to be out for the next show,” she says, “it is a mental exercise unlike anything else.”
With the idea in mind, Wolf knew she needed to next plan logistics. She knew she wanted to start the show at her favorite underground comedy theater, Sea Tea Improv in Hartford, and Managing Director Julia Pistell was game.
“When you do a project with Chion, you know that she is ambitious enough that it’s going be good and compassionate enough that it will be warm,” Pistell says. “She’s creative, she’s curious, and those are the kinds of things I always want to say yes to.”
The monthly show ran at the theater from late 2016 until the start of the pandemic. Wolf and her rotating panelists addressed issues of varying intensity, from pet problems to structural inequities.
As she grew her projects, Wolf also continued to grow her network throughout Hartford by exploring more of her passions, one of which became particularly important to her in June of 2016 when she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in the West End of Hartford. The crash resulted in a shattered collarbone, for which she needed a plate and eight screws put in, but it did not deter her from riding.
“As soon as I got the OK from my doctor that I could ride my bike, the first thing I did was ride through that intersection where it [the crash] happened,” she says. “And that day, as I was getting acclimated to being on the bike again, I was fantasizing about what it would be like to ride on these streets without any vehicles.”
This inspired moment came shortly before the Hartford Marathon, so Wolf quickly noticed the road closure signs around the city.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to ride the marathon route while they were, like, setting up the banana and water stands? It would be in the pre-dawn hours, they would have all the streets shut down, we wouldn’t be running into the runners because it would be too early, and then we could ride without worrying about getting hit by cars, which of course, now, is an intimate interest of mine,” she says with a sly smile.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity, Wolf, along with two friends and her now-wife, Emily Petersen, arose early that marathon morning and rode their bikes along the route.
“It was thrilling. We would pass by the people setting up the water and banana stands and be like, ‘Good morning!’” she says, throwing her hand up in joyous triumph.
As soon as their ride was over, Wolf began thinking about how she could help others feel that same joy. The group went out for Irish coffees following the ride, and Wolf immediately pulled out a pen and began writing her ideas on a napkin.
“I started writing down everything that was great about it and what stuck out about it, like how beautiful it was to watch the sunrise, and how much fun it was, and how secure we felt,” she recalls.
Wolf brought the idea to the Hartford Marathon Foundation, calling the event Pedal to the Medal Hartford. She hoped it would get folks comfortable riding bikes for the first time, advocate for safer street design, and raise funds for BiCi Co., a Hartford-based bicycle shop that works to strengthen non-automotive travel throughout the city.
Intrigued by the idea, the Hartford Marathon Foundation board asked Wolf to start the ride a bit earlier, at 5 a.m. instead of 7 a.m., and to let them know how it went.
For that first experimental year, Wolf put up fliers and invited people on Facebook. Unsure how many people would come, she printed out 42 release forms, an homage to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and arrived for the event. When that morning came, so many people turned up, she ran out of forms.
She got the green light to make the event larger the following year, but needed to raise $25,000 to do it, to help cover the cost of police security, EMTs, and insurance. She did, and the event was even better than she imagined. The event’s 240 slots sold out four weeks prior to the ride.
Despite the ride’s success, concerns over potential safety issues moved the event the following year off the marathon route to CTfastrak. While the event is paused due to the pandemic, Wolf is already thinking of new ideas for how Pedal to the Medal could continue to grow and change to still encourage bicycle use in the city. In total, the events have raised $16,555 for BiCi Co.
Wolf’s myriad experiences have culminated in her most ambitious project to date: Audacious.
“It’s what I’ve been training for my whole life,” Wolf says. “The standards that I think people have for my work, for anyone who’s followed what I’ve done, are what I need to live up to.”
Wolf describes the show as “topics that you didn’t know you wanted to know more about, or questions that you didn’t realize you wanted to ask about things that seem everyday.”
Though the show is now successfully running with Connecticut Public, it hit some difficulties along the way. It initially was supposed to premier in April 2020. Then the pandemic hit, so the radio station pivoted and started “US in the Time of Coronavirus: A Living History with Chion Wolf.”
“US in the Time of Coronavirus” became a nine-episode series that addressed how various people were handling the pandemic.
“I think that was a great way to get these personal stories on the air about what we were going through, about how people were dealing with a pandemic in so many different ways,” Talarski says. “It had little sprinkles of what Audacious would be, just those sorts of personal, emotional stories.”
After those nine episodes aired, Wolf went back to committing her time and energy to Audacious.
“She’s like a one-woman band. She’s doing everything … she’s hosting, she’s producing, she edits her show together,” Talarski says. “It’s amazing to me to just watch her and how passionate she is about putting this show out every week. There’s a fire in her to do this and it’s exciting to watch.”
Wolf hopes the show encourages people to flex their “empathy muscles.”
In order to do that, Wolf is unafraid to ask potentially difficult questions. “I’m not a confrontational person, but I feel that I have a really healthy respect for curiosity. If I’m thinking about the question, then someone listening probably is too,” Wolf says. “It’s definitely a show that humanizes those who have been stereotyped.”
Shows so far have included interviews with women who had double mastectomies, parents who have children with life-threatening diseases, and people who have found photos of themselves turned into international memes. Wolf says the interviews she finds the most satisfying are with people whose ideas will not only challenge listeners but will challenge her.
One particular interview that deeply resonated with Wolf was with a woman who is a 99-year-old, transgender, World War II fighter pilot. After her husband died and she was denied his Social Security Administration benefits because she is transgender, she fought and won a case that changed the policies for other trans people moving forward.
“She told me, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m not male, I’m not female, I’m a pilot,’” Wolf says of the woman. “There’s this tension of just wanting to be acknowledged for who you are, while at the same time, part of who you are is really important to point out, and I love that tension.”
That tension is one that Wolf experienced throughout her own life since coming out at the age of 16.
“I remember saying to my mom that it’s not everything about me,” she says. “And I also didn’t know, and still don’t have a label for me. I know I’m not straight. I know I’m not totally gay either. I don’t know what the name for it is.”
With that came the fear that her future accomplishments may be marred by a label of her sexual orientation, and she still sometimes feels that tension to this day.
“I do remember feeling worried that I would be Chion, the lesbian fill-in-the-blank,” she says. “But that tension is, inevitably, in all of us, recognizing that we are all so much more than this one thing, but this one thing is important, too.”
Wolf says she is grateful to live in a community wherein she does not feel as though her sexual orientation is the defining part of her life, and she feels free to continue thriving in her home in Hartford where she lives with her wife, Emily Petersen, whom she married in October 2020.
“I love calling her my wife. I’m still not over it,” she says, a grin sprawling across her face. “I have a feeling that calling her my wife will be novel for a long time, because I never thought I’d be able to get married. I never thought I’d be able to call someone my wife. I don’t mean partner, or someone you domestically live with, but wife. And I never thought anyone would call me their wife. So growing up with the expectation that it would be something else, if anything, to me is still hard for me to wrap my head around.”
They share their home in Hartford’s Asylum Hill with two cats, a dog, and numerous chickens.
Petersen, a NICU nurse at Connecticut Children’s Hospital, says all aspects of Wolf’s life go into creating the best work that she can.
“Every part of her life is this ongoing thread of curiosity that she’s been able to make into something that I think has touched a lot of people, creating those spaces for storytelling to take place when other people might not make those channels of communication happen,” Petersen says. “She’s a special person.”
Looking forward, Wolf is excited and eager to continue her work with Audacious, and she’s confident to watch how it will continue to grow.
“Because I wholeheartedly put everything into this, and I clearly believe in its power as a show, there’s no doubt that it will continue to get bigger and bigger and braver and scarier,” she says. “And maybe, maybe, maybe, one of these days, I will be on live radio so I can bring everything that I’ve learned to light, and I can slay it.”