In 2010, WDSE-WRPT launched its program “The PlayList” in about the buzziest possible way: front-row seats for a Trampled By Turtles show at Pizza Lucé, the Duluth-bred bluegrass band's home venue. This was the “Palomino” era, before cellist Eamonn McLain joined, and when fans in the back rows were lucky if they could see the top of Banjo Dave Carroll’s head.
“They had a healthy following," Karen Sunderman, the show’s host, recalled recently. "Things were exploding for them. They were still playing sitting down. The crush of the people in the bar that night … Banjo Dave said it was mild compared to what has happened in the past."
It’s one of the noteworthy scenes from Sunderman’s 27-year career at the local public television station, where she hosted programs such as the outdoorsy “Venture North,” the backyards-y “Great Gardening” and coverage of regional artists, entertainers and other makers in shows such as “The PlayList,” “Making it Up North” and “The Slice.” The longtime storyteller announced last week via social media that she was leaving the station and received dozens of thank-yous and say-it-ain’t-sos in response.
Her next stop: The Duluth Superior Community Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides money for the arts, community development, education, environment and human services. Sunderman will work in the public role of connecting kids with scholarships and also in communications. She starts Aug. 11.
“I wanted to do more,” she said. “I want to do more that has an impact, a more direct impact to build community … to help them build and expand access to scholarships for all students. Let people know that those scholarships are for everyone.”
Shaun Floerke, president of the foundation, said he held his breath for three days while waiting for Sunderman to accept the job.
"I could go on all day," he said. "She has this incredible skill set, both communication and people. That's what we need. Even more so, she has this incredible heart and love for the community that she just lives and moves in."
Patty Mester, president and general manager of WDSE-WRPT, described Sunderman as being deeply committed to doing great work.
"Her years of service and work at WDSE-WRPT, with community at the center, has been and remains well respected," she said. "She will be missed."
Sunderman had worked as a news reporter and producer at WDIO-TV when she started at WDSE-WRPT in 1994. Soon after, she took on hosting and producing "Venture North" and produced the award-winning documentary "Working Waterfront: A Harbor Portrait," for which she and a crew were allowed access to 10 vessels ranging from a saltie to a tugboat.
"That was a lot, for a farmer's kid to be able to climb aboard boats," she said. "It was also the biggest number of people I'd ever marshalled onto one projection. It was a big deal for a young producer."
She went on to produce more documentaries, including "Brew North: A Beer Story," "Last Call for the Mitchell Yards," "The Plein Air Brush Off!" and "Working on the Railroad." In 2018, she received a major award from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council.
She added on "Great Gardening," which developed from her own interest in gardening. "The PlayList" started as a live show out of the WDSE studios.
"Live anything is kind of terrifying," she said. "Once that train starts moving, nothing is going to stop it until 27 minutes lapse."
One time, the power was cut during a live Southwire performance, Sunderman recalled. They ultimately got another go with the hip-hop band with a deep gospel sound during Homegrown Music Festival. The rock band Cars & Trucks played with a cameo from the Grim Reaper, which was also a highlight.
Most recently, Sunderman found herself sharing a tandem bike with Steve Ash, who has been her TV partner since 1995.
“Whenever I say, ‘I,’ it’s never an ‘I,’” she said. ‘It’s always a ‘we.’”
Their first story featured a sea kayaking trip at Tettegouche State Park, where they got into wetsuits and locked their clothes in the car — along with the keys. Still, they forged ahead.
"We went and shot the story, then found a ranger," Ash said.
"We often joked that the other one was the other half of the brain," he said. "I would do the visual side; Karen would do the words. … She's super approachable. We could go into a place where a person was very afraid of being on television, and she could calm them down, make them feel relaxed, do an interview, and they would thank us when we left because it was such a great experience."
As for the recent bike ride:
"We were following Steve Solkela down Chestnut Street," she said of the Iron Range-based artist who performs as the Overpopulated One-Man Band. "When do you ever get to do this? What a gift."
Sunderman said she was still processing the notes she has received since making her announcement.
"It just fills my little heart," she said. "I'm ridiculously overwhelmed by the kind things people have said. That's not something I'm accustomed to. You do your job.
"I think maybe I made a difference."