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CREATING FLORIDA'S MEDIA POWERHOUSE
When the Kenansville, Fla.-based Southeast AgNet announced in March the purchase of Citrus Industry Magazine (CI), based in Bartow, Fla., it raised a few eyebrows among agriculture media observers. It was, after all, a reversal of the norm for such transactions.

More often than not, it's the print media that set their sights on electronic outlets as a means of expanding coverage and exposure. In this instance, owners of the radio network envision the magazine as a stepping-stone to enhance its contact with growers. The move brought together two of Florida's principal agricultural media specialists.

Gary Cooper (l), co-owner of Southeast AgNet and Citrus Industry Magazine, interviews U.S. Rep. Alan Boyd (r) at Boyd's farm in northern Florida.
Gary Cooper, who owns the three-state radio network with his wife Robin Loftin, has a long history of serving farmers with timely broadcasts. He began farm broadcasting while a student at the University of Florida in 1978. He served as a broadcasting intern at the Florida Farm Bureau in Gainesville while earning a broadcast degree, then became, as he put it, "Florida's first bona fide farm broadcaster."

The roots of Citrus Industry Magazine, begun by a former Iowa newspaperman, S.L. Frisbie who came to Florida in 1918, are sunk even deeper in Florida's sandy soils. Observing that the developing citrus industry had no publication, Frisbie published the first issue of CI in January 1920 in Bartow, where he also published the local newspaper. He operated the newspaper and magazine under the name Associated Publications Corporation.

Ernie Neff, a former daily newspaper journalist and agricultural trade association executive, has been editor since 1997. He will continue to edit the magazine on a contract basis under the new ownership. Current circulation of the magazine is approximately 9,000.

An adjunct to the magazine is the Citrus Expo, held annually since 1992 in Ft. Myers in cooperation with the Gulf Citrus Growers Association and the University of Florida-IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center. The event is a trade show and seminar for citrus growers.

DEEP BROADCASTING ROOTS

Cooper has never strayed far from his farm roots in Palm Beach County, where his parents operated a vegetable farm until the mid-1970s. The radio bug hit him during college. Cooper, along with several other investors, launched the original Independent Florida Agrinet in the mid-1980s. That venture would eventually fall on hard times.

The concept was re-organized in 1994 as the Southeast AgNet and expanded beyond Florida to include a network of radio outlets in Alabama and Georgia. Today the network embraces some 60 stations and is driven by key correspondents in all three states. The correspondents have strong connections to the agriculture industry. "Broadcasts are different for each state, where we localize all our news for each state served, focusing on different aspects of the agriculture industry in that region of the country," Cooper says.

Ag Market Research (AMR), a tracking firm recognized for studying farm broadcasting audiences nationwide, indicates Southeast AgNet's broadcasters are recognized by 72 percent of farmers surveyed in key agricultural regions of the three states.

Familiar voices on the network include Lee McCoy, who operates out of Peachtree City, Ga., and covers the agriculture news beat in that state and doubles as a sales representative. Tyron Spearman, known to many around the nation as "Mr. Peanut" for his expertise in reporting on the peanut industry, provides regular updates from an office in Tifton, Ga.

Long-time farm broadcast commentary specialist Everett Griner records "Agri-View," one of Southeast AgNet's most popular and lasting programs.
Everett Griner, who files reports from a barn-based studio that overlooks a cotton field in Moultrie, Ga., is the elder statesman of the broadcast group. Griner began his agriculture broadcasting career in 1949 and his ongoing "Agri-View" has become one of the Southeast AgNet's most popular and lasting program features. Cooper describes Griner's commentaries about the nation's most important industry as "in a class all their own."

Cooper's brother, Dan, who goes by the on-air name Daniel Lee, handles the network's overnight weather program production duties and maintains the group's Web site www.southeastagnet.com, which links program distribution systems for the network's station affiliates and archives radio news clips by category for Web site visitors.

Randall Weiseman is director of operations and programming and operates from a base in Pensacola, Fla., where he anchors cattle programs for all three states and covers news events and issues in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle in addition to his network oversight duties.

Two years ago Cindy Zimmerman, one of the original partners in the creation of the Independent Florida Agrinet, was welcomed back to the network. She works from a base in Central Missouri, keeping tabs on national farm issues including farm legislation, trade and other issues that might impact the three states.

Commenting on the future of the network and magazine operation, Cooper says the long-term view is "fairly simple." He notes that "we in the agriculture media are at the mercy of advertising budgets and since things continue to consolidate both in media and on the supplier side, we felt dealing with those issues through some consolidation of our own was a logical step. Years ago we diversified into a three-state network for similar reasons, to get a bigger footprint and more types of crops and industry segments to target, spreading our business model over a larger territory to keep it
more sustainable."

Acquiring the magazine, Cooper says, "takes us to the next level, to the head of the pack when it comes to agriculture media in Florida. And considering our exclusive position in the region as well-known farm broadcasters, it should provide some excellent economies of scale and cross-promotion capabilities for our advertising and marketing clients."

Cooper points out Southeast AgNet and CI are the only two media outlets serving the broad-based agriculture industry that are owned and operated by Florida-based entities. "We have always felt, as most Florida farmers still do, that agriculture in this state is very different from other areas and therefore the problems and issues are best dealt with by those with strong roots to the state," he says. "We feel this industry in Florida deserves to keep homegrown media in its midst, and we plan to do all we can to remain in service to the industry in this capacity since growers and farmers continue to bluntly tell us that is what they want."

With the purchase of the magazine, Cooper says cross promotion of many products will fall into place as efforts are made to expand CI's base coverage to include some vegetable crops. "The purchase and consolidation of such a respected name as Citrus Industry Magazine in Florida into our company should show people how serious we are in terms of what we can do," he says. "We plan to be THE media player in terms of agriculture publishing and broadcasting in this top-10-agriculture-production state."

Cooper views the radio network as "complementing the magazine content" by becoming a "great resource for the magazine to draw from in terms of material for in-depth articles and issues that need more detail than radio can provide. So, in terms of resources toward a full-service product ? print, broadcast or Web site from a true Florida vision, we see no equal in the market."

LEADERS SPEAK UP

Florida agriculture industry leaders also have commented favorably. State Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson says, "I was pleased by Southeast AgNet's purchase of the magazine as it promises to pump new life and fresh resources into an established and respected publication. Gary Cooper's experience and commitment to bringing agricultural news to Floridians are second to none, and I'm confident that Citrus Industry Magazine will benefit significantly by his steady hand."

Florida Farm Bureau President Carl Loop describes Cooper as a "talented, tireless promoter and reporter of key events within Florida's farm and ranch circles. The marriage of Southeast AgNet with Citrus Industry Magazine should be a winning combination. The network provides up-to-the-minute coverage of markets and events while the magazine is a platform for more in-depth treatment of issues, people and knowledge."

Florida Citrus Mutual Executive Andy LaVigne, head of the state's largest citrus grower organization, notes, "Southeast AgNet has been a strong advocate for the Florida agriculture industry and especially Florida's citrus industry. Cooper has sought to carry the story to not only the agriculture community, but also the urban masses in an effort to educate Florida's booming population. He has stayed on top of the issues impacting growers today, such as citrus canker, and on top of those issues that will impact our industry in the future, such as our tariff preservation effort and important citrus research. The marriage of Southeast AgNet and Citrus Industry Magazine is a great opportunity for Florida's citrus industry, and we look forward to Cooper's success." AM

Earl Wells is a retired Florida agriculture trade association executive, a former newspaper reporter and editor, and presently a freelance writer well-known to many in Florida's agriculture community.


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