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Straddling the great divide: farm broadcasters work to overcome the rural/urban gap. (Farm Broadcast Update).

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 frontpage 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 nontraditional 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.

Samuelson: Anyone involved in the food chain from `dirt-to-plate' has a responsibility to help people understand, whether it's through mass media or one-on-one in coffee hour at church. I would like to see agrimarketers spend some advertising money to help listeners understand why the agriculture community is important, and why it needs consideration and political support. All of us need to constantly sell the industry, not just products. To continue to communicate with urban listeners on behalf of agriculture, we need to put dollars on the bottom line or management may decide there are more lucrative ways to program our agribusiness time. If that ever happens, farmers and all of agribusiness will lose a strong voice in urban markets.

Slusarczyk: Agrimarketers should explain agricultural issues that concern urban audiences in their radio ads. Archer Daniels Midland does a good job of this. Other associations and commodity groups also have a role such as NCGA, Pork Producers, Wheat Growers and Soybean Growers. The National Ad Council also should play a part in developing communication between farm and urban audiences.

Tremble: Agrimarketers need to know what kind of concerns are facing the ag industry, what kind of concerns are facing the urban population and find a common ground between the two. Agrimarketing is not just about selling your clients' product, it is about selling an idea.

The broadcaster also has a role to not only communicate with listeners, but also with agrimarketers. They need to inform the agrimarketer of current events, current contacts, and current interests of those in the industry. Then, it is the agrimarketer's job to pull this information together and draw the `lines' that connect rural and urban audiences.

Young: Educate. Educate. Educate. Anyone who has an interest--financial or otherwise--in the production of food and fiber has a role.

RELATED ARTICLE: Perceptions of Rural America.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Mich., released a study on the perceptions of rural America and public policy entitled, Perceptions of Rural America: Congressional Perspectives. Interviews with members of Congress found that legislators view rural America as an incubator of traditional values but believe the absence of a strong national voice is an obstacle in drafting rural policy.

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Inc., a Democratic research firm, and Greener and Hook, a Republican consulting firm, conducted the interviews. The bi-partisan research included 26 members of Congress, including 16 Democratic House members and senators and 10 Republican House members and senators.

"Elected officials share the view that there is something unique and particular about rural America that deserves attention, protection, and support," said Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Inc. "But legislators express some pessimism about rural America. They are disturbed about the death of the family farm and the effect that consolidation has on ordinary farmers as well as the persistent poverty in rural communities and the difficulty of bringing economic opportunities to rural communities."

Policy makers interviewed identified that job loss and the overall lack of economic opportunities are the two greatest challenges facing rural America. A list of rural issues includes increasing resources to family farmers rectifying the inequities in the farm bill, expanding access to broadband, improving the rural healthcare system, generating incentives for industry to locate in rural communities, and preserving the rural environment.

"We found that one barrier to effective policy making ... is the well-organized interests that exert a profound effect over rural policy making--particularly on the farm bill--that are not always beneficial to the small farmer and the rural economy as a whole," said Bill Greener of Greener and Hook. "The study also found that legislators feel hostage to a system that is captive to multiple interests and programs like Food Stamps that are impossible to vote against."

"These interviews with members of Congress give us an important snapshot about how federal policy makers view rural America," said Rick Foster, vice president for programs, W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "This is the second report we have released in a series of surveys about how rural America is perceived. In the next year we hope to also complete a national public opinion survey, regional focus groups, and a content analysis of media coverage of rural America."

The first report was released last December and was based on in-depth interviews with 242 residents of rural, suburban, and urban America. It found that perceptions of rural America are centered on a series of contradictions:

* Rural life is more relaxed and slower than city life, but harder and more grueling;

* Rural life is friendly, but intolerant of outsiders and difference;

* Rural life is richer in community life, but epitomized by individuals struggling independently to make ends meet.
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Comment:Straddling the great divide: farm broadcasters work to overcome the rural/urban gap. (Farm Broadcast Update).
Author:Reddick, Bekah
Publication:Agri Marketing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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