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The mission of the Red River Farm Network (RRFN), an ag radio network serving 14 markets in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, is to "super-serve farmers and those who want to do business with them." In today's competitive and what some might call "shrinking market" for farm broadcasting, some feel it takes a superhero type of effort to keep ag radio networks vital and viable in rural areas.

Ken Morgan, Red River Farm Network, interviews Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty.
At RRFN, Mike Hergert, Ken Morgan and Don Wick (newly aboard after many years at WCCO Radio in Minneapolis) want it known that this network still commits the same amount of time to farm broadcasting as it has for the past eight years, and the rumor of the impending death of farm radio is "greatly exaggerated."

"No doubt, NAFB (National Association of Farm Broadcasters) has lost some members," Hergert says. "So from that standpoint you might say there have been some cuts in farm broadcasting. But the on-air commitment to farm radio at our network hasn't changed. And I know it hasn't at other networks as well.

"Now national ad revenue may be less. There was a time when national advertising was all a network needed to stay in business. To survive and grow, we need to develop more local and regional contacts. But we're still driven by programming."


Don Wick interviews Tom Borgen, past president of the Northern Canola Growers Association and farmer from Langdon, N.D.
The lines are beginning to blur a little in broadcast media as radio networks are seeing the value in reaching beyond on-air messages to get to listeners. In some cases, the listeners are also becoming readers.

One prime example is RRFN's FARMNETNEWS. This weekly e-newsletter is sent to 3,000 subscribers every Monday, recapping the previous week's ag news for farmers, ag business professionals and ag communicators at agencies and elsewhere. Most are in the upper Midwest and Red River Valley, but some subscribers are U.S. Grains Council folks around the world.

Wick, who created the e-newsletter while at WCCO, now produces it for RRFN. He has found it to be an excellent tool to promote the network and its ability to reach the grower-listener.

Mike Hergert visits with Kevin Thorsness, Bayer CropScience technical specialist, on a sugar beet plot tour.
"It's a snapshot of what we've aired the previous week," Wick explains. "We have lots of news, an extensive farm calendar and a trivia contest to get bounce-back information from our readers." Hergert adds, "Some people seem to answer back to the trivia question before they even get finished reading it. It's very popular."

There is no advertising on the e-newsletter. It is a PR tool to promote RRFN and demonstrate its farm broadcasting capabilities. "We consider ourselves ag journalists," Hergert says. Wick says, "Whatever fashion it takes - radio or the e-newsletter - we're just happy people are tuning in."

Wick adds that an e-newsletter isn't exactly revolutionary, but he believes the consistency of the information coming to readers weekly gives it "credibility."

RRFN uses programming and the e-newsletter to cross-promote what its broadcasters are up to. In August, for example, it promoted Harvest Reports. In September, it promoted Hergert's trip to the WTO meeting in Cancun. During the summer, the newsletter promoted the network's five-part series on biotechnology in agriculture. "It's a promotional tool and that's how we use it," Hergert says.


They say necessity is the mother of invention. Not sure who they are, but...RRFN also has a twist to how it covers some events. For example, last winter it sent farmer Tim DuFault to Brazil on a farm tour and taught him how to send reports back to the network.

"We ended up with seven or eight, three-to-five minute reports," Hergert explains. "You know how busy the winter months are with meetings. We couldn't get to this so we taught. Tim how to record interviews. We put a map of Brazil on our Web site and reported every day on where Tim was in Brazil. As you know, there's a whole lot of interest in Brazilian agriculture.

"Tim is a techie guy, and we knew we could teach him how to use a mini disk recorder. It turned out wonderful. We got lots of feedback," Hergert says.

Wick, Hergert and Morgan know that keeping the radio network strong in the years ahead will require a constant effort to maintain close relationships with their farm audience. "Farmers know us on a first-name basis," Wick says. "In a way, advertisers borrow on our ability to relate to the ag audience."

Hergert says he believes advertisers focus everything on the farmers who are going to be here in 20 years. "Our job is to put out the most professional image we can to, first, serve the grower-listener, and second, let advertisers know that we're delivering up-to-the-minute information to our listeners."


Another subtle change at RRFN is an effort to get more news in a segment than in the past. "We do stories that focus on how information impacts a farmer's bottom line," Wick says. "We don't do a lot of feature stuff. We focus on pocketbook issues and do more short stories on hard news.

"The way I envision it is this: when a farmer pulls up in his pickup in front of the café for lunch, we want him to stay in the pickup until all the news is over. He won't want to miss a thing," Wick explains. Hergert says he sometimes wonders what PR agencies would say if they saw how the broadcasters edit those two-page product news releases. "We're just writing tighter," he says.

RRFN knows that every day it gets messages to its listeners/readers, it reaches three audiences - its affiliates, its farmers, and its advertisers. When Wick joined in May, Hergert, Wick and John Vasichek, RRFN president, went on a visit to all 14 affiliates. Most visits turned into mini-focus groups as farmers were part of those meetings.

"I was impressed with the relationship the network had with farmers," Wick says. "Some networks have an arms-length relationship with farmers because they work through a radio station. Farmers know the RRFN and its farm broadcasters. That's important to an advertiser."

Hergert says the major challenge ahead as a network may have more to do with the program directors understanding ag, not farmers seeking less information. "I've never talked to a farmer who wants less information, be that on radio or on a Web site," he says. "It's getting program directors excited about farm broadcasting."

From that standpoint, Wick says, "We're pretty lucky. We're mostly in small markets where agriculture is still the number one industry. There may be fewer producers, but ag is still number one."

Hergert adds, "Most of our affiliates are still locally owned properties. It's much easier that way. Most of those program directors know running a lot of commercials is good for everybody. There's no question it's getting harder and harder for all of us to do business with people who don't understand ag. If program directors don't understand, they usually think less is better. That's the biggest challenge ahead." AM

Den Gardner owns Gardner & Gardner Communications, New Prague, Minn.

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