TALKING TO TOWN AND COUNTRY
FARM BROADCASTERS REACH OUT TO URBAN AUDIENCES
Debby Hartke, Contributing Editor
They may not know a combine from a planter, but "city folks" like to hear farm news, according to farm broadcasters with both rural and urban listeners in their audiences.
How do broadcasters present the news farmers and ranchers need and want but, at the same time, keep urban listeners from turning the dial? How do they keep both sides of the fence happy?
According to reports from around the country, with a little effort and a little humor, farm broadcasters are not only keeping the city folks from tuning out, but are turning them into some of their most loyal listeners.
WRFD Radio, Columbus, Ohio
"I will not 'dumb it down,'" says Darrin Johnston, farm director at radio station WRFD in Columbus, Ohio, about his two hours of daily farm programming. "I'm going to use the terms that we use in agriculture. Periodically, what I'll do is throw in an explanation. For example, when doing the market report, I'll say, 'pork bellies - or bacon sides.'"
When not airing farm news, WRFD broadcasts a Christian format. Johnston doesn't focus on production ag or rural-lifestyle stories. He presents the news farmers need in a business-like manner.
"We try very hard not to por-tray a good-old-boy, 'Green Acres' kind of agriculture," Johnston says. "When we're doing our farm report, it is an hour-and-a-half business report. There are not a lot of way-of-life kinds of stories."
WRFD's urban listeners stick with the station through Johnston's midday farm report.
"People come up to us at fairs and tell us, 'We listen to you all morning. We even listen to your farm news. We have no idea what you're talking about but we enjoy it,'" Johnston relates.
Other broadcasters in addition to Johnston mention this enjoyment or entertainment factor. The idea is not necessarily for farm broadcasters to be funny, but to sound like they're having fun.
"It's a matter of today's society that you have to be somewhat entertaining," Johnston says. "To a lot of listeners that means you have to sound like you enjoy what you're doing. They'll stick with you even if they have no idea what youíre talking about. We try to do that, but still get out the information they need."
For a time, WRFD reached out proactively to urban listeners with a Saturday morning one-hour talk show called "The Coffee Shop." Johnston would bring in guests to discuss various topics and invite call-in questions and discussions.
"In rural America, the coffee shop is a place where rural and urban people get together," Johnston says. "We tried to do both sides of an issue, pro and con."
Johnston has stopped doing the show for now, but not because it didn't work.
"I got burned out," he says. "I was working six days a week and I just had to back off. There we were, doing a show talking about things like family values, and I was thinking about how I wasn't at home with my family."
The station plans to continue the show on an as-needed basis, when a particular issue arises.
Johnston tries to keep abreast of farm policy issues and make them understandable for his listeners.
"Government farm programs, that's one of the most difficult things for our listeners to get a handle on," he says. "So I keep digging until I can find someone who can make me understand it. Then I put that person on the air."
Johnston doesn't approach the topic of biotechnology from a consumer perspective, although it is a topic that generally arouses strong feelings in most consumers.
"I don't approach it from a standpoint of 'prove to me this is safe' for the consumer listener," he says. "I approach it for my farmer audience, but I tell them, 'Here's what's being said in town. Here's the headline and here are the facts behind it." I give them the truth they need to tell their own story. But while I'm doing it in that way, I'm delivering the message to that consuming audience as well."
Being honest helps build trust with both sides of his audience, Johnston says.
"We have a right and responsibility that, when things are bad, we've got to tell farmers they're bad and look for ways to help them get out of it," he says.
When something happens that can create bad public relations for farming, such as a manure spill, Johnston says he has an obligation both to report it and keep the incident in perspective.
"We can't candycoat it," Johnston says. "When there's an accident, there's an accident. When it's deliberate, we have to report it, but we also have the responsibility to point out that it was one incident, one bad actor."
ABN Radio and TV, Columbus, Ohio
Ohio is a highly urban state and getting more so all the time, according to farm broadcaster Ed Johnson, president of Agri Communicators Inc., Columbus, Ohio. Agri Communicators is the umbrella company for ABN Radio, ABN TV and ABN Publications.
"We have more people per square mile in Ohio than they do in China," Johnson says. "Almost every county seat has a local radio station with a strong following. Those listeners who are not farm people don't turn off their local station when we come on with the farm broadcast. Knowing that, I try to incorporate consumer stories."
Johnson has produced a growing number of consumer stories during the last five to 10 years as the agriculture industry has become more concerned about the image it presents to the consumer.
"Whenever we can, I'll take a consumer-related story over a pure ag story," he says. "One example would be ethanol. It's very key for the corn grower and very key for those driving cars. We want them to put out less emissions."
ABN Radioís programming is sent to 70 stations in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia; most of the radio stations are in Ohio. Johnson launched ABN Radio 26 years ago and radio is the main focus for Johnson and broadcasters Dale Minyo and Doug Tanner.
"We produce everything from 15-minute programs down to a minute, so we can fit into stations' formats," Johnson says. "Even with those short programs, I try to keep that consumer in mind. People are so sensitive to food-related issues."
This year, ABN plans to broadcast about 140 days from remote locations, including about 34 county fairs.
"This means that better than every other day we're on the road with the mid-day show," Johnson says. "At the fairs, people gather around for the broadcast. They ask questions afterwards. We like to be out there where our listeners are, where our viewers are, where our readers are. It gives us a way to take those farmers' stories to the consumers."
ABN TV is in its 19th year of broadcasting a half-hour show called "Agri Country" on 11 television stations in Ohio and Indiana as well as the Columbus cable TV system. All the TV programs are shot on location and, with no reruns, ABN will be broadcasting its 1000th show soon.
ABN's surveys on its TV show indicate it has 70 percent reach with farmers, but that two out of three viewers are non-farm.
"We reach half a million viewers every Saturday," Johnson says. "We are a medium that reaches more non-farm people every week than anything else in Ohio. There are 67,000 farm families in Ohio. For a station to keep us on the air, they too want a larger audience than just farm."
ABN spent a lot of airtime on the biotechnology issue this year. Johnson believes broadcasters have been able to make some headway with consumers regarding the advantages of biotechnology.
Stories about conservation, cleaner water, cleaner air, and the livestock, dairy and poultry production areas in Ohio also catch the consumerís interest.
"We tell listeners that farmers are using less herbicide and are establishing buffer strips," Johnson says. "They like to know these things. We want to share with folks that we really want to have these livestock products produced here in our state rather than have all these EPA regulations become so severe that we'll drive animal production right off the shores of the U.S."
This fall, ABN TV is partnering with the Kroger Co. grocery chain and putting on cooking schools around Ohio. Schools are presented by home economist Connie Cahill, the host of a weekly segment on ABN TV's "Agri Country" called "Country Kitchen." Local 4-H and FFA chapters help sell tickets to the schools and, in return, receive all the proceeds.
"This is a major thrust for us to reach out to consumers," Johnson says.
Johnson says the ABN team encourages farmers to carry out public relations efforts of their own.
"We're really promoting to farmers to dress up the farmstead, to plant flower beds around the barn and so forth," he says. "And they're doing it. So when those urban folks drive by, they have a good image of the farm."
WHO Radio, Des Moines
Talking to urban listeners is "part and parcel of our mission," says Gary Wergin, who shares farm broadcasting duties with Mark Pearson at WHO Radio in Des Moines.
"We have a unique opportunity here in the largest metropolitan area in Iowa to get agriculture's story across," Wergin says. "With farm radio, we have an opportunity to be a bridge. The average person is not going to read an ag magazine; not going to watch a farm television program. But if they want to know about the weather or about traffic, they're going to be listening to us."
Wergin's and Pearson's farm show - they call it 'The Big Show' - runs daily from 11:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. In addition to ag reports, it includes local and syndicated news.
"We want to present information that farmers need, but in a way we don't lose listeners in town," Wergin says. "We'll take a minute to explain a term. For example, we'll say, 'For our listeners in town, that means ...'"
Wergin also mentions the importance of humor and entertainment.
"We're trying to create a new model for farm broadcast here at WHO," he says. "We're trying to make it as user-friendly as possible. We have listeners listening for the entertainment value and we hope they get some sort of an education as part of it.
"As far as ratings go, we seem to be holding on during the farm program. We're in first or second place in most listings."
From time to time, Wergin and Pearson actively promote agriculture to their urban audience. For pork month last October, they invited non-farm listeners to call in and answer questions about the pork industry.
"We would get a pork producer on the line to serve as their mentor," Wergin says. "When they got the answers right, which they did with the help of their mentor, they would win not only a pork gift certificate, but a framed certificate saying they are a 'Pork Information Guru' or PIG. We had a CPA get her PIG on our show. We had a lot of fun with that."
WCCO Radio, Minneapolis
At WCCO Radio in Minneapolis, farm directors Roger Strom and Don Wick aim to put the value of the state's agriculture into perspective for their urban listeners.
"We try to stress the importance of agriculture and commodities to the state's overall economy," Strom says. "We try to explain the effect on the national trade deficit and try to relate it back to Minneapolis."
Farmer listeners are supportive when the broadcasters take a minute to explain things in laymen's terms for their urban listeners.
"We're doing hard ag news, but we try not to use the lingo any more than necessary. That would lose them," Strom says. "Our farmer listeners understand what we're doing. What you hear from the farm organizations and commodity groups is that we have to get our message to consumers."
With the urban consumers in mind, the broadcasters spend time on activities that support increased consumption of ag products like beef and milk. "We give these more time than we likely would if we were just in a rural area," Strom says.
Even if they don't work directly on the farm today, many of their listeners came from a farm, know somebody on a farm or are connected to ag through their work.
"We get a lot of calls from average consumers wanting to know more about specific stories that we've done," Strom says. "We get more calls from city people than from farmers themselves."
Appreciation for rural Minnesota is not the only factor driving listeners to call in. They possess a real desire to understand the issues, according to Strom.
"Minnesota people are a learned group," he says. "We get questions like, 'I see the overall economy is doing well. But you say the ag economy is not. Why is that?'"
With overlapping shifts, Strom and Wick are on-air some part of every hour from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Together they cover almost an entire hour at noon. Wick works the evening drive-time shift and includes even more consumer-type stories then. Listeners trust them because of this steady, on-air presence, Strom says.
"We're woven in throughout the day, so we're personalities on the air," he says. "I'm on doing jokes in the morning and then come in with the farm news."
Not only do they help keep ag in perspective for their listeners, Strom and Wick help the station's other news reporters maintain perspective and objectivity when they cover an ag-related story.
"Say there's a negative slant in a story in the news department," Strom says. "They'll call on us as references. Having us available helps keep them in the middle of the road."
WCCO often visits and broadcasts from surrounding rural communities, which helps further Strom's and Wick's efforts to increase urban listeners' understanding and appreciation of agriculture.
"We'll go to a community and take the entire station," Strom says. "That puts the whole community in the spotlight. For example, we'll tell people what New Ulm is like. We'll interview the local people and put them in skits on the air. We are the ambassadors for agriculture. AM
Debby Hartke is a writer and communications consultant based in St. Louis, Mo.