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Using Storytelling and the Arts to Facilitate Business & Community

No matter what he did or how he spent his time as a child, Solon Kelleher ’20 says his passion for the arts was always simmering beneath the surface.

While he loved music and writing—he took piano lessons and even composed his own songs—he opted to study philosophy in college. After earning an undergraduate degree at New York University, he worked in a variety of sales and marketing positions across New York where he scripted videos, crafted story pitches, and led teams of brand ambassadors.

Because of his passion for the arts, he often found himself seeking out new types of expression—which is how he uncovered the Humans of New York photoblog.

“I loved a lot of things about it, and how it sparked interactions between people,” Kelleher explained. “But I also thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if you could ask these deep questions and listen to someone respond instead of seeing their picture and reading their response?’ ”

He brought that idea to life by launching a podcast where he interviewed strangers and told their stories. While he was getting production off the ground and building a small following, he discovered Northwestern’s MA in Sound Arts and Industries program.

While Kelleher didn’t plan to attend graduate school, he had considered pursuing journalism to explore storytelling—but he wanted to focus on telling stories through sound, not through writing.

“The Sound Arts and Industries program was a perfect match for me,” he explains. “It was broad in the sense that you could bring in different interests, but it was all centered on sound. I knew it would be a place where I could test out different fields.”

In addition to exploring new opportunities, Kelleher says the program also helped him form invaluable connections with his cohort and professors. “It was fascinating to bring my podcasting interest to a group of people who were thinking about videogame sound design, creating museum sound spaces, and designing sounds for amusement parks.”

As he moved through the program, he found himself gravitating toward radio and podcasting courses. Through these experiences, he could envision himself working at a media organization like NPR or a podcasting group. For the right opportunity and the right story, he was ready to pick up and go anywhere after graduation. When the pandemic hit, however, his plans changed.

After finishing the last few months of his degree program online, he decided to switch career paths and return to Worcester, MA—and to his family’s restaurant. His great grandfather opened George’s Coney Island Hot Dogs in Worcester in 1918, and his family has owned the iconic eatery for four generations.

His mother was running Coney Island with the help of a few employees, and Kelleher knew how overwhelming the task had been. It seemed like a good time to get involved.

He now spends his days as the restaurant’s chief operating officer, interacting with customers and making sure the business runs smoothly. He plans to continue to work for the family restaurant for as long as he can while finding a way to expand its presence as a cultural landmark.

In the background, he’s constantly thinking about ways he can use his love of storytelling to build community in and around Worcester. Through the Worcester Arts Council, he secured a grant for Walk w/Out Rhythm, a project that promotes local musicians, space makers, and artists.

Kelleher also recently landed an arts reporting fellowship with WBUR, Boston’s NPR, where he works in a newsroom and operates as a reporter on an arts and culture team, with a particular focus on overlooked communities and artforms.

“Working at an NPR station is a dream come true for me—something I’ve wanted to do since I was a teenager,” Kelleher describes. “To finally have this dream come to fruition in such a way that I get to pursue it while I work at the family restaurant is better than I could have imagined. I’m hoping to shape a balance where I’m working for myself, helping build community through my family’s restaurant, and creating art that brings people joy and builds community in other ways.”

He says the MA in Sound Arts and Industries program not only helped him hone his audio storytelling skills, but also taught him how to have conversations about the relationship between sound and science.

“What happens when someone walks into a room where different sounds are playing? Even things like setting up the jukebox at the restaurant or repurposing the bar into a live event space—what I bring to the restaurant is going to be a lot richer because of what I’ve learned at Northwestern,” he says.

Read more on our blog and follow Northwestern’s Sound Arts and Industries program on Facebook and Twitter.