Ellen Stanley Knows What She’s Doing

The depth of her musical knowledge—from promotion to playing to producing a radio show—has helped boost women’s voices on the airwaves for two decades.


Ellen Stanley is a triple threat in the Minnesota music scene: An accomplished banjo player in her own right, a publicist for other musicians, and the host of Womenfolk Radio on KFAI, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month.

“I feel like I’ve done a lot and I’m proud of everything I’ve done and feel really lucky I’ve gotten to do so many things with so many interesting people,” she says. After nurturing a love of folk music stemming from her summer camp in her teen years and listening to Steve Winters’ Profiles in Folk, out of WSHU in Fairfield, CT, a show celebrating its 50th anniversary. “He played a bluegrass instrumental of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ that blew my mind, and [listening to the show] was definitely really instrumental,” she says. Then she went to Oberlin for college, where decided to give WOBC radio a shot. She applied to do a show she is now chagrined to admit was called “The Chick Hour.” It was—you guessed it—two hours of women in folk.

Right before 9/11, she moved to the Twin Cities, in part because Red House Records, a folk label, was based here. “Working with people like Lucy Kaplansky and John Gorka—it was like working with my heroes,” she says. Being a public-radio nerd, she also knew about KFAI. “I look at that and the radio and I think, ‘I can’t believe I did that,’ like interviewing Joan Baez or Joan Armatrading or Shawn Colvin or Dar Williams. Every once in awhile, I think, ‘That’s really cool, Ellen.’”

She started volunteering at the station right away in the stacks, helping with the library and worked to get certified to DJ at the board. She started helping around the special programming the station did each year for International Women’s Day, and there is when she connected with the previous host of Womenfolk, 13 years before it became her own show.

“A collective preceded me, and we’ve always been a strong movement for women’s and LGBT voices, and we’re amplifying all underserved communities now, of course,” she says.

Despite an overarching feeling of contraction many artists and consumers feel when it comes to creating and producing music, Stanley says there is clearly, actually a great appetite for all of it, including the show—spreading out into listeners digging into the archives, on demand, and now even listening in syndication. And, she notes, there are still more live shows than she can get to, even if she wants to. Some are publicized and some are underground, which is as the scene always has been constructed.

Some other things are as they’ve been in the past as well, although not as positively. “People were asking me 15 years ago, not just now: Do you think you still need a women’s music show? When I think we don’t need it anymore, we won’t do it,” she says. “There are so many artists …and there are a lot of great radio shows in the public radio spectrum and I’m always surprised I can listen to a while 30 minutes sometimes and not hear a single female artist. That, to me, says something. I don’t think it’s all intentional or anything, but it also indicates an unwitting bias. And also what gets pumped into money and investment and marketing artists. The diversity of women’s voices is not great, either. Not just the quantity of women….you see this with BIPOC artists in certain formats too…these five token people we’ve decided are worthy–no! There’s a lot more than that! That’s the difference: By creating a space that is for women and nonbinary artists what you’re saying is “We don’t need to just play these five artists, we can expand beyond that.”

Stanley, like most people of a certain age who love music, still sees the romance in a mixtape, which also fuels the show. “The power of having all these voices together,” she enthuses. “That still makes radio programmed by people special. The reason why people listen and donate to these scrappy little stations like KFAI is because of the people who put it together. You know, like my own little mixtape.”

She’ll be celebrating twenty years of Womenfolk mixtapes with an event at the Parkway that will feature performances by Johnatha Brooke, Mary Cutrufello, Ellis Delaney, Molly Maher, The OK Factor, Ann Reed, Becky Schlegel and more, with proceeds going back to KFAI.

“I never feel the age or accomplishment I really am,” she says. “I’ll still surprisingly get nerdy and excited about things internally and think ‘I should be cooler than this now.’ But no, I really am still excited and can’t believe I get to do this. There are always things I want to be doing and doing better. You can do something a long time, and what you learn is that you still don’t know what you’re doing.”

Celebrating 20 Years of Womenfolk with Ellen Stanley
Nov. 20, $15-$30
Parkway Theater, 4814 Chicago Ave., Mpls.

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