Radio stations and networks in Texas, Montana and Appalachia serve rural areas in ways new and old

August 2005

An ambitious station in Texas, a Montana-based news network and a three-station cooperative in Central Appalachia offer hope for the future of radio news, especially in rural areas, said those who heard their stories at the nation’s largest journalism convention, in August 2005.

A session at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications confab in San Antonio spotlighted KWED of nearby Seguin, an AM station that says it makes money with a daily, printed publication; the Northern Broadcasting System, which started as an agricultural network and now has a 32-station news network; and non-commercial Allegheny Mountain Radio, three stations in southeast West Virginia and southwest Virginia.

The session was the last of several about community journalism -- which some educators, many of them former journalists, said was a hot topic at the 88th annual convention, which attracted about 2,000 people.

Chris Martin of West Virginia University said that in five days at the convention, the community-journalism sessions were the only times she heard about increased circulation and audiences, and that she heard no other journalists say what KWED News and Operations Director Darren Dunn said -- that they had covered a community in every way possible and got it right.

Dunn, an African American, grew up in the suburbs of Houston and aimed for a broadcast career. “I never thought I could live in a small town” like Seguin, population 23,000, he told the educators. Now he not only lives there but is president of the local Rotary Club and puts out what amounts to a newspaper – the Seguin Daily News, a 32-page mini-tabloid, with a free circulation of 3,500, five days a week.

“I feel like some days I’m more of a print person than I am a broadcaster,” he said. Martin said KWED’s story is a great example of media convergence, one done with much less hoopla and money than better-publicized convergence efforts.

A newsy station gets newsier -- in print

KWED had the horses to operate in another medium because it already had a news department with three full-time employees, plus interns from Texas Lutheran University in Seguin (pronounced seh-GEEN, with a hard “g”) and other schools. “We believe in community-oriented radio. We believe in strong service to the community,” including editorials on local issues, station owner Hal Widstein said. The print operation has two employees of its own and recently started turning a profit, he said.

The paper started several years ago as a front-and-back, 8½-by-11-inch flyer with classified ads, then became a four-pager. It expanded to a colorful mini-tab through a deal with a local printing company. Widstein, who has owned KWED since 1983, said that as far as he knows, his venture into print is unique. “We can’t find another one of these anywhere,” he said. The paper is also online, at this site.

Widstein said he saw a need for another print news outlet in Guadalupe County because the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise, which publishes daily except Saturday and Monday, left too many things uncovered and seemed to have too many political agendas and too much biased reporting. After the mini-tab started, the Gazette-Enterprise, owned by Southern Newspapers, “added color, shortened stories, and started printing a section with only good news,” Dunn said.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues sought a reply from the Gazette-Enterprise. Managing Editor Chris Lykins, quoting Publisher Tommy Crow, said in a telephone message that the newspaper has a policy of not commenting on other local media outlets, and will continue that policy.

Dunn said the Gazette-Enterprise, formed by a merger in the 1980s, was not accustomed to competition, while the radio station has always competed with all the stations in San Antonio and half those in Austin. “I think the town has been the big winner in all of this,” he said. “If they get better, we get better.”

The paper’s most popular feature is “Seguin Citizen,” a daily profile of a local person. Dunn said readers often skip the news up front to see who has bene selected and read about their neighbor. The choice for Thursday, Aug. 11 was the manager of a local futness center, which had a quarter-page ad in the edition.

The station has another print product, a 120-page program for local high-school football games. It sells the ads for the outer 40 pages, which change from game to game, and the local booster club sells the ads for the center 80 pages, which don’t. “Our idea is that we’ve got this community covered in every possible way,” Dunn said. “I say if it happens in Seguin, we’ll cover it.”

For a radio site that calls itself an "e-newspaper," see Wisconsin's www.DoorCountyDailyNews.com.

As for the radio business, Widstein said it has “a lot of challenges these days,” including “big-box retailers” that put local stores out of business. He said large radio groups, such as San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications, filled a need because nearly half of U.S. radio stations were losing money when the groups began forming.

“I have no problem with consolidation,” Widstein said. “I just have a problem with the people who are doing it.” He said “there are a lot of better broadcasters” than Clear Channel, by far the largest owner of radio stations, “but these were the guys who were able to put together a whole lot of money really quick . . . because Lowry Mays [chairman of Clear Channel] is an investment banker.”

A network grows in Montana, and other states

The Northern Broadcasting System was started in 1975 by Conrad Burns, now a U.S. senator, as a way to deliver farm news to Montana, a large, sparsely populated state with 2.3 cattle per person. Burns, who sold the network when he entered politics, gave the network a regional name so it could more easily expand beyond Montana. Today, stations in the Dakotas, Wyoming and Idaho, and one in non-adjacent Oregon, are among the 70-plus affiliates that receive 109 farm- and rural-oriented radio programs each week. It also produces two TV programs, aired on eight Montana stations.

Five years ago, NBS began the Northern News Network, now with 32 affiliates, most of whom are also members of the Northern Ag Network, said Kathy McCleary, NBS's director of sales and marketing.

The news network offers seven newscasts a day, as well as a daily commentary, a daily talk show and a daily sports report. McCleary said the sports program includes a continuing story about a golf course being built hole by hole for a disabled child, now the subject of a movie being produced for HBO. Students of Denise Dowling of the University of Montana have done stories on the Montana legislature for the network and 20 unaffiliated stations.

The network functions by barter: Affiliates get content and give up commercial time inside the network's programs. Because airtime for some programs can be hard to get, McCleary said, the network sells some sponsorships for one-minute blocks. It established that revenue source by indirectly helping Montana’s rural electric cooperatives overcome their problems with the legislature. The network paid for a survey of the co-ops’ members, McCleary said. “They found out their own members didn’t know they were co-op members or who owned them.” Two years later, after the advertising had raised the co-ops’ profile and influence, “They said they’d never had such an easy time in the legislature.”

For more about NBS, click here. For descriptions of its programs, click here. For a look at its staff, including four broadcast personalities in cowboy hats, click here.

Appalachian stations offer lifelines in isolated area

Allegheny Mountain Radio is a network of three noncommercial stations in adjoining counties across a state line – WVMR-AM in Frost (Pocahontas County), W.Va., WVLS-FM in Monterey (Highland County), Va., and WCHG-FM in Hot Springs (Bath County), Va. Two are classified as sole-service providers, meaning that no other station serves the community.

The stations are owned by Pocahontas Communications Cooperative Corp., which has an elected board of directors and an advisory board, and gets most of its funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It has seven employees, 20 regular volunteers and other occasional volunteers.

“I hope it represents a wave of the future in terms of return to localism in radio . . . perhaps a movement of citizens taking back the airwaves,” said Maryanne Reed of West Virginia University, who has a vacation home in the area.

The West Virginia station was founded in 1982 by Gibbs Kinderman, an Oregonian who came to the area as one of the Appalachian Volunteers, the mid-1960s forerunners of Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) workers – who are now among the station’s staff. The Virginia stations went on the air in 1995, and the cooperative is planning a station in Monroe County, W.Va., a non-adjacent county to the west. For more on WVMR, click here. For a map of the region with WCHG's coverage area, click here.

The West Virginia station can’t use the FM band or broadcast after 6 p.m. because it is eight miles from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va. But the station was allowed to remain on the air for 72 consecutive hours during a flood in the area a few years ago. “Where community radio really gets important is when you have a disaster in the community,” Reed’s WVU colleague, Ralph Hanson, said during an earlier session at the conference. Appeals for victims of misfortune are heard at other times; Hansen cited one for a family whose house burned down. Allegheny Mountain Radio is “hyper-local media . . . local media that’s actually local,” Hanson said.

One of the cooperative’s slogans is “unique by nature, traditional by choice.” Reed said it has “old-fashioned public-affairs programs,” bluegrass, old-time country, gospel and “roots” music. Burl Ives’ “I Found My Best Friend at the Dog Pound” introduces the animal-shelter report that seeks adoptions.

While the stations' background might suggest a liberal bent, Reed said the area is socially conservative and the stations “try to be politically neutral” and do not air any political talk shows or commentary. She said it dropped James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family” program when it became more political and anti-gay. To balance that decision, she said, the co-op made its gospel music program a daily feature.

Widstein said he sees a place for non-commercial stations – including low-power, community-operated FM stations to serve underserved constituencies and provide an outlet for lesser-heard voices – but is concerned that community boards lack the continuity needed to ensure adherence to technical rules and standards, and thus may create problems for other broadcasters. “We have the potential of creating Citizens Band on the AM and FM bands,” he said. CB is notorious for interference caused by engineering violations and other problems. Also, he said, such stations need to be kept truly non-commercial -- not allowing underwriting and sponsorship recognitions to expand into commercials, and prohibitions against exchanging the stations for money.

Clear Channel defends remote news, acknowledges pitfalls

Facing a journalism researcher yesterday, Clear Channel Communications officials said one of their program directors should have seen that stories by the station’s reporters -- including one about forest fire outbreaks -- went on air through a central production hub. But the radio giant defended its hub-and-spoke news production system, which sends material to hubs where stories are produced for individual stations.

The encounter occurred at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s annual convention in Clear Channel's home base of San Antonio. The executives were Mark Mays, the company’s president and CEO; and John Hogan, president and CEO of Clear Channel Radio, the country's largest radio operator. The researcher was Lee Hood of the University of Colorado, a former broadcast producer who spent a week last summer in one of Clear Channel's Western markets. Hood welcomed the executives, because the Clear Channel station with the central hub declined cooperation.

Hood said big stories in the unnamed city of 50,000 on July 13 and 14, 2004, included: severe thunderstorms and resulting forest fires; a county fair parade that drew a huge, holiday-sized crowd; and a utility’s request for a rate increase. She said none of those events were reported on the day they occurred, except a National Weather Service warning about the storms – which was followed 50 minutes later by the station’s recorded weather forecast of "partly cloudy with a chance of a few scattered thunderstorms."

Hood said the station’s two reporters filed stories, with asterisks to alert the central hub, and were shocked to hear that they didn't air that day. "It’s difficult to say that a local market is being served if things like forest fires don’t get on the air," Hood said.

"Sounds like a bad program director," Mays replied. Hogan said any one of the company’s 900-plus local program directors can decide what stories go on the air. "Nobody in a remote location makes the decision to control local programming," he said. "It doesn’t sound like the person did a very good job."

Hogan said the hub-and-spoke concept allows Clear Channel to use "better resources, like better voices or better technologies," including digital files sent over the Internet. If a station can only afford two reporters, he asked, why not transfer the production function elsewhere? In this case, he said, "The execution . . . clearly was wrong."

Left unanswered in the session was how often such episodes occur at stations operated by Clear Channel and other groups. Researchers said they hoped the companies would be more cooperative with their efforts than Clear Channel had been with Hood. "We have serious questions about media concentration that cannot be dismissed with canned answers," said Mark Harmon of the University of Tennessee.

Other panelists said they appreciated the Clear Channel executives' willingness to face questions at the convention. "I think they're honest about communicating their corporate message," Laura Smith of the University of South Carolina told Ashlee Erwin of the University of Missouri, a writer for AEJMC Reporter, the convention newspaper. "Where they see it in corporate headquarters is very different from where people in our backyards see it."



Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building,
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, Institute director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last revised: Aug. 15, 2005