By Michelle M. Murphy
many adult siblings, the five Dolan sisters used to have
a hard time keeping up with each other. It wasnt that
they didnt want to; it was just that with careers,
families and geographythey lived in four different
cities on two continentsit was tough to find time for
regular, unhurried, satisfying conversation.
Not any more. For the past two years, these five womenJulie,
Liz, Sheila, Monica and Lian Dolanhave been getting
together, so to speak, for an hour each weekan hour
thats part family reunion, part high-tech conference
call, part talk show. Theyre no longer just the Dolan
sisters, chatting in anonymity. Now, to thousands of devoted
fans, theyre the Satellite Sisters, hosts of
one of National Public Radios most popular new programs.
The sharp wit, humor and empathy that the Dolans share
fills each program with laughter, even while the sisters
are considering some fairly serious topics, says Laura
Walker, president of WNYC Radio.
The format of Satellite Sisters is straightforward:
From New York, Bangkok, Pasadena, and Portland, Ore., each
Dolan sister calls in by telephone for an hour of live, unscripted
(but loosely planned) conversation that ranges from the mountains
to the molehills of everyday lifefrom breast cancer
or managing finances after divorce, to the proper technique
for melon-balling or for escaping from a boring gourmet group.
Their nickname comes, of course, from the technology needed
to connect them all, and the bloodline that they share. But
it also means much more. According to Lian, a Satellite Sister
is a sounding board for your wacky career plans, a
guaranteed chitchat partner at cocktail parties, someone
whos seen you in your glasses, someone to put on the
emergency form at your childs school. A Satellite Sister
brings information, perspective and balance to your life
when you are lacking all three. A Satellite Sister is the
person who gets you through, makes you laugh, and, every
once in a while, changes your mind.
A joint effort between WNYC Radio, Oregon Public Broadcasting,
and Mudbath Productions (the Dolans own company), Satellite
Sisters debuted on four stations on April Fools Day
2000. The concept was a few years in the making, though:
Its roots go back to August 1996, when Lizthen a high-level
executive at Nikefirst proposed that the sisters think
about collaborating on a business. Since the only real skill
they all shared was swimming (and, as she said, its
hard to make a living as a swimmer), she instead proposed
a business that would capitalize on what they collectively
did best: talk.
We all thought it was laughable, recalls Sheila. We
pretended to go along. We humored her. And we had fun brainstorming
But Liz persevered. The show now airs on 70 stations, including
six of the countrys top 10 radio markets. Thousands
more fans tune in via Web site, www.satellitesisters.com.
And, last November, the Dolans published their first book, UnCommon
Senses. A collection of essays, it conveys the lessons
these sisters learned growing up in a big family and how
that prepared them for life in the real world (see sidebar).
Excerpts were published in O Magazine and Good
Housekeeping, and in December the Dolans even appeared
What surprised us when we started talking on the radio
was why people said they were listening. They told us that
it didnt really matter what the topic wasthey
just liked listening to sisters talk. People immediately
understood what the show was really aboutconnecting
with family and friends, Julie wrote in the book.
For the Dolan sisters, those connections include Holy Cross.
Their father, James, graduated in 1950, and their uncle Tom
Dolan, was in the class of 53. In addition to the five
Dolan girls, there were also three Dolan boys, and they all
graduated from Holy Cross: Jim in 1974, Dick in 1976, and
Brendan in 1984. Jims wife, Mary McGuire, graduated
Sheila was the first female Dolan to come to Holy Cross,
enrolling in the fall of 1976. But after a year and a half,
she decided it wasnt for her. At Holy Cross,
a lot of kids come from big families, so in some ways, I
felt very comfortable there, she recalls. But
I loved New York, and I wanted that New York excitement.
I was in transition.
Of course, I was in transition for many years, she
adds with a wry chuckle.
Now, she is the Dolan with the most degrees: In 1990, she
earned a bachelor of arts degree in English and education,
graduating summa cum laude from Hunter College; in
1996, she completed a masters in elementary education
from the New York Institute of Technology; and, in 1999,
she earned another masters, this one in education administration,
from Baruch College.
After my attempts at Holy Cross, my mother was a little
concerned, Sheila says. But she trusted that
wed all find our own way, and find out what we were
None of them could have imagined (although perhaps they
should have) that it would be communications, with a capital
C. After all, none of them had ever worked in radioexcept
for Lian, whod had a brief stint as a disc jockey while
she was an undergraduate at Pomona College in the late 1980s.
And although Sheila had published what she calls some
really bad poetry in The Purple, none of the
five was a real author. So where did they get
the nerve to think they could pull this off?
Partly from their mother. We all grew up knowing we
had something to contribute, Sheila remembers. She
also taught us to work hard. We had to find jobs. We had
to do chores. We had to find a way to pay our way.
And partly from their father, too. It turns out that he
was actually the first Dolan with radio experience. We
saw these pictures of my dad when he was a DJ at Holy Cross,
spinning the top 10, and we thought: how
corny is that! Sheila says.
But Dad also instilled a love of language in us and
a love of a good story, she continues. He taught
us how to use the stuff of everyday life as material. What
was funny, what wasnt.
Sheila concedes that its ironicbut fittingthat
these early lessons are the foundation for their successful
collaboration. Plus, it seems so simpletoo simple! We
are Irish, and we love to talk! she says, laughing. Somehow
people really pick up on our natural chemistry. They are
enthralled by the fact that we all really like each other.
Lots of people talk about the dysfunctional family;
we wanted to celebrate a happy family, she continues. Not
a perfect family, by any means, but one where we really like
each other and enjoy one another and support one another.
Their fans, they find, fall into two very broad categories:
people who grew up much the way they did, and therefore know
precisely where they are coming from, or people who didntbut
wish they had.
Our listeners believe what we believe: that being
someones sister, or brother, or teacher, or friend
is what gives meaning to our lives, Julie writes in UnCommon
Senses. Nurturing relationships is what shapes
who we are and how we live. We know that you dont have
to have shared the same bathroom
to be connected.
Those just happen to be our reasons. Most of us are bound
together by sharing the small acts of everyday life with
the people in our lives who support, accept, sometimes bust,
and always encourage us.
I accept and prefer that I am one small cog in a big
giant wheel, a wheel that includes family, friends, co-workers,
strangersall kinds of connections, concludes
Lian, in another essay. And Ive learned that
its the quality of these connections that determine
the quality of my life.
Meet the Satellite Sisters
Julie Dolan Smith, 47, graduated from Smith College
and earned an M.B.A. degree from Penn State. She and her husband,
who have two college-age sons, live in Bangkok, where his job
took them in 1999.
Liz Dolan, 44, earned a bachelors
degree in comparative literature from Brown. She runs her
own sports marketing company and divides her time between
Ore., and New York City.
Sheila Dolan 81, 43,
just moved to Santa Monica this past summer, after going
(Hunter College, New York Institute of Technology, and
Baruch College) and working in public education in New York
for more than 20 years. She is the divorced mother of Ruth,
at Hampshire College.
Monica Dolan, 42, graduated
from the nursing school at Georgetown University and
as a clinical specialist for a pacemaker company in Portland,
Lian Dolan, 37, earned a B.A. degree in classics
from Pomona College, Claremont, Calif. A free-lance
writer, she lives in Pasadena, Calif., with her husband and
Big-Family Lessons from the Satellite Sisters
For anyone whos grown up in a large familyand
especially a large Irish-Catholic familysome of these
lessons, excerpted from UnCommon Senses, may sound very familiar:
- I would sum up the underlying principles of nearly
all household rules as follows: Youre not the only
person in the whole damn universe, so you better get over
yourself and pitch in for the good of the group. This may
sound cold, but in a big family, it is the simple truth.
- In our house, dinner was a big event. After the
plates were on the table but before grace was said, there
was always one thing left to do: Take the phone off the
hook ... Dinner was about conversation with each otherconversation
in the loosest sense of the word
When we put the
phone back on the hook as we cleared the table, there were
no saved messages or indicators of missed calls. In the
world before answering machines and voicemail, none of
those options ever occurred to us, and we were none the
worse for it. There were simply calls that did not happen
because we were having dinner together. As my mother always
said, If it was important, theyll call back.
- My mother didnt teach us to ski until we
could carry our own skis from the car to the lodge in the
morning andthis is keyfrom the lodge back to
the car at the end of the day. Even cold, wet and tired,
we had to get our skis, poles, and boots back to that station
wagon on our own. And no whining. The lesson was simple,
really. Be responsible for yourself and your stuff or you
- Growing up in a big family is great preparation
for the big world. All the team-building skills that they
try to teach you in grad school, we learned by doing dishes,
sharing rooms, borrowing clothes, bickering over the TV,
trading chores, cleaning our rooms, fighting over the front
seat, setting the table, raking leaves, and always, always,
always traveling in large groups.
Michelle M. Murphy is a free-lance writer from West