Debbie Coakley, Contributing Editor
Editor's note: Back in 1925 radio was a young medium when a handful of today's leading farm broadcasting stations went on the air. The profiles that follow highlight each station's continued commitment to agricultural programming and show how farm broadcasters are keeping in tune with their listeners' needs.
WJBC HITS THE ROAD TO STAY IN TOUCH WITH LISTENERS
If it's the month of March, you can expect to find WJBC Radio's Marla Behrends at a diner somewhere in McLean County buying coffee for people who stop by to see her. That's just one way the downstate Illinois farm broadcaster stays in tune to her listeners' concerns.
"We started The Marla Tour four years ago as a way for me to get out and meet people in the Bloomington-Normal area," says Behrends, who joined the station in 1994. "Each day during March I do live reports from a coffee shop and auction a 'Marla Tour' cap to raise money for local causes."
The March 2000 tour raised more than $25,000 for charity, bringing the total to more than $100,000 in four years. "This year's donations helped purchase a computer for an ambulance in Carlock, buy baseball shirts for the McLean baseball team and build a pavilion in the park in LeRoy," Behrends says.
During each daily stop, Behrends conducts one-on-one interviews with the visiting farmers about planting conditions and issues affecting their business. She features these interviews during future farm reports.
"Everyone likes knowing what their neighbor is doing and what's happening in central Illinois," Behrends says. "So I do live remotes all the time from county fairs and other ag-related events. We don't carry syndicated reports that are statewide or national. Whenever I can, I include a perspective from a local producer."
She notes that McLean County produces more corn and soybeans than any county in the nation. "That's why WJBC has always had a strong focus on agriculture since it went on the air in 1925," she explains. "Listeners know they can tune to WJBC weekday mornings, midday and throughout the day for the latest on markets, weather and local farm news."
WTAD'S NEW STUDIO FEATURES LATEST TECHNOLOGY
Farm broadcaster Pam Fretwell can essentially be in two places at the same time, thanks to technology recently implemented by WTAD Radio, based in Quincy, Ill.
"Our brand-new studio features the most modern and up-to-date equipment," Fretwell says. "We're completely computerized and automated if we want to be. I can put my reports in the computer ahead of time to run in a later time frame and not have to be there live in the studio."
She says being able to record almost any report, other than markets, ahead of time allows her to be free to go out and attend an ag event or meet with farmers. "It's very important for me to get to know my listeners," says Fretwell, who joined the 75-year-old station a year ago. "If I can't get out of the studio, I touch base with producers by phone."
Hot topics for producers in WTAD's listening area - 22 counties in Illinois, Iowa and Missouri - have changed through the years. "Today, farmers are interested in biotechnology, world trade talks, gasoline prices and the pork referendum," says Fretwell, who was in agriculture production for 26 years prior to joining the station a year ago.
Fretwell prides herself on being the only National Association of Farm Broadcaster member in the Tri-State area. "WTAD has always understood how important farming is to our community," she says. "The backbone of our economy is based on agriculture, and the Tri-State farmers know they can count on WTAD's farm updates."
Farmers will continue to rely on radio for farm news, according to Fretwell. "Each day I sift through information on the latest news and information farmers need to stay in business," she explains. "All they have to do is turn on their radio."
WOWO BRINGS AUDIENCE A NATIONAL PERSPECTIVE
Covering farm news in 22 counties surrounding Fort Wayne, Ind., while staying on top of important national stories is no easy feat. But WOWO Radio's Kevin Morse has found a way to give listeners the blend of local and national news they're looking for.
"I spend a lot of time talking to farmers at local events and on the phone," says Morse, who joined the 75-year-old station in February 1996. "But national news also impacts farmers in our area. To stay on top of that, I utilize a service from the National Association of Farm Broadcasters."
At the association's Web site, Morse can log on and download stories filed by other NAFB broadcasters or from national farm organizations, associations and companies. "I can slice up the audio to include portions relevant to WOWO listeners and air them during the morning and noon shows," he says.
Morse points out that ag-related topics are cyclical in nature. "Trade relations with China were talked about excessively two months ago, and now the issue is hot again because the Senate is debating it," he explains. "Mad Cow Disease was discussed practically every day for weeks three years ago, and recently it was back in the news."
Because the station is based in a metropolitan area, Morse also has the challenge of balancing hard-core ag news with farm news that has a consumer bent. Stories about milk and gas prices are two issues that appeal to both types of listeners.
An opportune time for Morse to meet his listeners is at the Fort Wayne Farm Show. "I'm at one of the main displays each January and get to talk to a lot of people all day long. I also broadcast live during the three-day trade show."
KMA GUESTS GIVE LISTENERS SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT
When listeners tune in to KMA Radio, Shenandoah, Iowa, from 12:15 p.m. to 12:30 p.m. each weekday, they can count on Keith Lundberg to have an interesting guest on the air talking about issues important to producers.
"I pride myself on having a visitor, usually a farmer, in the studio with me each day," says Lundberg, farm director. "Listeners enjoy hearing the live interaction between me and a producer talking about topics such as the Farm Bill, export markets and crop insurance. Listeners have the opportunity to call in and give their thoughts as well."
During the rest of the 45-minute midday show, Lundberg covers farm news, weather and market information.
Since 1925, KMA has delivered this type of timely and relevant information to listeners in southwest Iowa, southeast Nebraska, northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri. "From day one, farming has been a top priority for the station," Lundberg says. "Although now the station features a talk-radio format."
While KMA continues its commitment to regional farm news, the station has refocused its attention to include a national perspective. "Now we talk about what's happening in Washington, D.C., and how it will impact producers in our region."
Even while reporting on national issues, Lundberg relies on talking directly to sources instead of using reports from wire services. "I have a lot of ties to Washington, D.C. The majority of stories I get are by calling someone, such as an official from USDA, to find out what's going on. I give listeners news they can't get on the Internet."
Guests from USDA, Congress and farm groups frequently air live during Lundberg's morning program. Topics include farm legislation, trade issues and export business. "Our listeners are not just interested in market prices. They want to know how they can make money farming."
KFYR BROADCASTER KNOWS WHAT FARMERS WANT
Al Gustin knows firsthand KFYR Radio's commitment to farm programming. Not only has he been at the Bismarck, N.D.-based station for 30 years, but he also farms in the area and grew up listening to KFYR.
"Agriculture is the number one industry in North Dakota, so farm programming has always been an important part of what we do," says Gustin, farm director. "Farmers identify KFYR as the place to go if they want farm news and market information."
Market updates and weather reports have been mainstays of the 75-year-old stationís farm programming. "But today's farmers are not just interested in what crops are worth at the local elevator," Gustin says. "They also want more sophisticated information such as futures, options, loan deficiency payments and marketing loan payments. Timely information is more important than ever."
Market reports cover prices for all crops grown in the state. Canola is an important crop, and corn and soybeans appear to be moving into the area.
The farm broadcaster maintains contact with producers on a daily basis by visiting with them in person or on the phone. "I want to find out what they're interested in or add a local perspective to a story," Gustin says.
He does live remotes at various agriculture events, including the station's exposition and trade show each February. "We also feature speakers at the show, which started in 1976. The Agri International serves as a place for our advertisers to reach farmers and ranchers and allows producers to do one-stop shopping."
Gustin says his role as a farm broadcaster has evolved into that of a gatekeeper. "I gather, edit and winnow the news to bring it into a concise form for farmers. When they tune in, they know that in the next five minutes they'll get all the information they need for the day." AM
Debbie Coakley is a freelance writer based in Warrenville, Ill.