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Band leader Friesen got his start in radio at Bethel

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – One of the best-known names in local radio got his start at Bethel College.

Orin Friesen’s roots are in the Mennonite community of Henderson, Neb. He grew up near York, Neb., where his family raised cattle and he would ride his horse out into the prairie to count them – and also, he admits, sing to them. He reports that one of his biggest thrills as a child was seeing Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and the Sons of the Pioneers at the Nebraska State Fair.

Friesen graduated from high school in Henderson, where the main church college his peers would talk about was Bethel. He came to Bethel for a year, 1964-65, before transferring to Kearney State College (now the University of Nebraska-Kearney) and finally finishing his degree at Wichita State University, in speech, radio and television, in 1969.

In that year at Bethel, however, he had his first radio show, on KBCT, a “carrier current” station, meaning it was transmitted through the electric lines only to campus buildings. (The station evolved to the present-day KBCU-FM.)

“I had a folk music show,” Friesen recalls. “When the first Bob Dylan record came out, I played it.”

After moving back to Nebraska briefly after graduation from WSU, Friesen returned to the Wichita area, where he has been ever since. In 1973, he began hosting a bluegrass program on KBUL-AM radio in Wichita, which in 1977 merged into KFDI-FM, a station with a country music format, also known area-wide for its weather coverage.

Almost 40 years later, Friesen still hosts the syndicated show, “The Rockin’ Banjo Ranch,” every Sunday morning at 7 on KFDI. In 1990, he was named the very first Bluegrass Broadcaster of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. He produced the IBMA Awards show for a decade, from 1990-2000.

In addition to his radio work, Friesen keeps busy as the operations manager and leader of a cowboy band called the Prairie Rose Rangers, the house band for the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Suppers at Benton. In addition to Friesen on bass, the band consists of Kim Coslett on guitar, Jolynn MacIntyre on fiddle, Kris Johnson on percussion and Orin’s son Jesse on guitar, resonator guitar and banjo.

The Prairie Rose Rangers came to Bethel College for the first time in 2010 to play at Fall Festival, where they were surprised and pleased by the standing-room-only response they got. Because of that enthusiasm, Fall Festival planners invited them back this year, when they’ll be in a larger tent with more seating.

It wasn’t the first time Friesen had played with a band at Bethel, however. He has been part of several other bands in addition to the Prairie Rose Rangers.

“We played here sometime in the ’70s, in the Fine Arts Center,” he remembers. “There was a bluegrass festival – maybe it was the Kansas Bluegrass Association. We were on the stage playing and suddenly about half the audience started running out. We wondered, ‘Are we that bad?’

“It turned out a guy had come in and stabbed a woman – though she wasn’t seriously hurt.”

At any rate, the Prairie Rose Rangers got a much better reception at Fall Festival – which helped them decide to turn down a couple other invitations in order to play for a second year.

“It almost didn’t happen,” Friesen says. The band was tentatively on the schedule for the China Rodeo on Oct. 8, the same day as most Fall Festival activities. “But they’d turned their booking over to a New York agency that didn’t know us from anybody, and they kept us on hold for so long we finally decided to cancel.”

Then the city of Wichita decided to hold its Kansas sesquicentennial celebration on Oct. 8 and wanted the Prairie Rose Rangers on the program. However, there were so many rules and requirements, Friesen says, they finally said No.

“Bethel had their date set a long time ago,” he observes. “If we’d done the Wichita show, we’d have had to run off right after our [Bethel] performance. We want to stay around and talk to people and sell our CDs.”

The band’s first, self-titled, recording included the single “Thank Heavens for Dale Evans,” that rose to the top of the Western music chart. And they have a brand-new Christmas album, which they’ve been working on since July 2009, ready earlier this month in time for the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, where they played one set.

The Prairie Rose Rangers play at Fall Festival Saturday, Oct. 8, at 10 a.m. in the Tent on the Green. For a complete Fall Festival schedule, go to www.bethelks.edu/fallfest, where you can view and print a festival program.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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