STRADDLING THE GREAT DIVIDE
FARM BROADCASTERS WORK TO OVERCOME THE RURAL/URBAN GAP
by Bekah Reddick, Assistant Editor
Editor's Note: As society becomes farther removed from traditional agriculture, many farm broadcasters are serving as the 'middle man' between rural and urban life. They often face the difficult tasks of educating non-farm audiences about important rural issues and defending the family farm, both on air and off. But as the urban/rural gap widens, many are coming to realize that this task is not just the role of the farm broadcaster, but that of all involved in the marketing, production and distribution of agriculture products.
Agri Marketing has talked to several farm broadcasters about their roles and the challenges they face in 'bridging the urban/rural gap.' The broadcasters include:
• Kevin Morse, WOWO Radio, Fort Wayne, Ind.
• Orion Samuelson, WGN Radio/Tribune Radio Networks, Chicago
• Ed Slusarczyk, Ag Radio Network, Utica, N.Y.
• Karen Tremble, Michigan Farm Radio Network, Lansing, Mich.
• Cyndi Young, Brownfield Network, Jefferson City, Mo.
AM: It is Agri Marketing's and the ag industry's feeling that most urban audiences don't fully understand rural and farming issues. Do you agree? How do you work to solve this problem?
Morse: This is very true. I write my farm news in a way that not only keeps producers informed, but also teaches my urban/consumer listeners of the issues facing both farmers and the general population. I am very careful in wording stories on certain ag topics to ensure my point is easily understandable.
Samuelson: I quickly became aware of this when I arrived at WGN in 1960 and started getting questions from our Chicago and suburban listeners about subsidies, chemicals, frozen pork belly futures and whatever we talked about on the "Noon Show." Some questions were critical, some just curious, but all deserved answers. I realized we had to find ways to explain food production, pricing, exports, food safety, etc. in language that would keep city folks interested. It's what I call 'creating a climate for listening.'
Slusarczyk: Farm broadcasters know that urban audiences need ag issues explained to them. Most issues require some degree of education in science in order to fully understand them. Additionally, when the Ag Radio Network recommends a management practice, we give a quick explanation, where applicable, on how the general public benefits.
Tremble: I do agree. Urban audiences are often several generations removed from the farm. They are unaware of how our food gets to the grocery shelves. The agriculture industry tries to, and I believe will continue to, correct this problem by encouraging individuals to get involved in such events as a county or state fair and educational programs for kids. However, I believe the best opportunity we have as an industry to educate others is through one-on-one conversations. Rural America needs to meet urban America.
At Michigan Farm Radio Network (MFRN), we spend much of our time informing and educating farmers and agribusinesses. MFRN tries to broaden our coverage of Michigan's diverse ag industry appealing to a wider range of people, including urban residents. For example, we have attempted to provide more information and news about the equine industry, which has not only captured the attention of serious horse advocates, but also those individuals that simply have the animals for companionship and pleasure.
Simply put, agriculture needs to broaden its horizons in order to capture more of the urban audience. I believe finding a common interest between rural and urban listeners such as horses, gardening or landscaping can do this.
Young: Although I agree that most urban audiences don't fully understand agriculture issues, I also believe there are some rural audiences that don't understand them. There are so many people living on five to 50 acres who moved from town to enjoy the country. They put on a suit and tie (or suit and heels) and carry a briefcase to work Monday through Friday. Those same people want to spend their weekends enjoying the tranquility of rural life. Unfortunately they may find that their tranquility sits next to a livestock operation and the wind is blowing their direction.
When I was in elementary school in Winchester, Ill. in the late 60s and early 70s, half of my classmates were farm kids. Today, my nieces and nephews attend the same school, where only two or three kids in a class have parents who are full-time farmers.
The first step in solving the problem is always defining the problem. I personally feel that educating the rural masses with the truth about those issues is just as key as educating urbanites. The key to solving the problem lies in education.
AM: How does your programming target both urban and rural/farm audiences?
Morse: I strive to explain, teach and inform listeners in everything that I write. I come from an urban background and have not personally lived on a farm. As a non-ag person, I write so that I understand what is going on in our farming community. When I get to the 'why does this matter to me' part of the story, I make sure that both the farmer and urban listeners can see the importance.
Samuelson: During the growing season, we spend time every Saturday with our horticultural specialist, Jim Fizzell, taking calls and answering questions about lawns, gardens, vegetables, weeds and insects. It attracts a lot of city listeners.
Also, we try to explain lower cattle and hog prices to city listeners by telling them they should look for lower prices at the meat counter. And if they don't find them, ring the service bell and ask the manager why prices aren't lower. We have heard from enough meat counter managers - who weren't happy with us - to know that listeners did it.
Our listeners know when agricultural issues such as meat recalls, foot-and-mouth disease and agricultural environmental issues are front-page news. They also know they can get factual information from Max Armstrong and me on WGN. Another major advantage is that our talk-show hosts don't hesitate to put us on their shows to explain stories confusing to those without farm backgrounds.
Slusarczyk: One of our daily programs is titled "Farm & Consumer News." This gives us a chance to explain why farmers must produce crops and livestock using the newest technology and research, and how consumers benefit. Consumers are very interested each time we explain the Integrated Pest Management program. They are glad to hear that scouts survey alfalfa, grain and fruit production areas and report to farmers the best time to spray for optimum results using the least amount of chemicals.
Tremble: As I mentioned before, MFRN tries to find a common interest between rural and farm audiences to provide a key link between the two. In addition, our network looks at general interest stories, such as tax laws, political elections and the weather, that may grab the attention of both groups. These kinds of stories serve the needs of both farm and urban audiences.
Young: The target audience for the majority of my programming is the farmer. However, we air a program that targets the horse-owner and we've picked up many non-traditional listeners, without losing the farmer we target. We are introducing a couple of new programs this fall that will interest rural audiences, but not just the farmer.
None of our programming is designed only for the urban listener. "Food For Thought," a farm-to-plate educational show, is the most urban-targeted program we have. But, all farm programming can be of interest to the urban audience. I'll often change a story, for instance about the farm bill, so it makes sense to someone who is not completely up to speed on the issue. Farmers don't lose anything, but it can make a huge difference in educating a non-farm listener.
AM: What are some rural/farm issues that really concern urban audiences?
Morse: There are certain issues that are scary to the general public, and I don't write stories that sensationalize the issue. Stories on BSE never contain the words 'mad cow.' Stories about FMD stress that the disease is devastating to livestock but does not affect humans directly. When I talk about financial assistance in the form of farm subsidies, etc., I don't use words like 'bailout.' I try to emphasize the importance of government assistance in the role of low food prices and abundant food supplies that we enjoy in this country.
Samuelson: Urban audiences are concerned about the amount of farm subsidy money going to just a few farmers as listed on the Internet by the Environmental Working Group. They also are concerned by the loss of farmland due to urban sprawl; the treatment of animals with special concern with what they term 'factory farms'; the safety of biotechnology in food; and environmental concerns.
Slusarczyk: Urban audiences want farmers to be profitable. A John Zogby poll conducted last year indicated that consumers would not mind paying a little more for their food. Consumers want farmers to be profitable because they are important to the economic viability of their communities, and they pay a large part of local taxes. When profitable, farmers produce safe and high-quality foods. The general public also likes to see scenic farms with well-kept buildings, grazing animals, maintained landscapes and a healthy environment. Farmers are the stewards of our land, and people want to keep it pastoral.
Tremble: I think the most prominent rural/farm issues concerning urban audiences are protection of the environment and biotechnology. Everyday it seems as though a farmer's commitment to environmental stewardship is being questioned. Environmental groups target farmers and consumer interest groups lobbying for better manure, chemical and soil management practices. I and most farmers would agree that all of those things are important and constantly need to be improved, but interest groups have failed to recognize the many contributions that the ag industry has made to ensure that environmental practices are sound. Often they see one or two 'bad actors' and accuse all others of the same crime.
In addition, urban audiences are concerned about the use of biotechnology. Some are concerned because they don't know what kind of benefits this technology can offer, and others are concerned because someone told them they should be. I think the Biotechnology Institute has come a long way in the past year in educating the general public about these technologies, however, their work and the ag industry's work is far from over.
Young: Food safety, biotechnology, and animal welfare are probably the big three. Also, there are those such as Waterkeepers who use their political and financial heritage to stand on a soapbox and denounce 'big agriculture.' Urban audiences have a warm and fuzzy feeling about small farms with baby pigs and calves and lambs, so they jump on board. Small or 'family' farmers are often misled by these groups - whose agenda is actually to eliminate everything that all farmers, small or large, stand for. So, they, too, jump on board.
AM: In your opinion, what can agrimarketers do to help bridge the gap? Who else has a role?
Morse: Agrimarketers need to speak to everyone in a language that is easily understandable and straightforward. Whether it is a radio commercial, a TV spot or written material in newspapers or magazines, the reader/listener needs to understand the message in laymen's terms.