THE FUTURE OF FARM BROADCASTING.
Farm broadcasting in the 1930s was almost accidental as a few powerful stations realized they could make money, and justify their reach into vast rural areas, by devoting programming to farm news and markets. Today, most of the big radio stations are no longer players; regional and state networks have sprung up, and automation has decreased the number of employees by at least 80%.
Networks found a niche in the 1970s, allowing more stations to carry farm programming with the prospect of greater revenue. Although there is strong equity in farm broadcasting, the future is anything but certain.
DISRUPTED BY INTERNET
The internet has disrupted all communications companies. It has allowed the target audience to wander. They listen, watch, and read anything they wish, mostly for free.
Point of origin of programming is irrelevant. The internet has allowed new players into the market with nothing other than a computer or smart phone. It has made the audience more elusive for advertisers but also has given them new choices in how they reach their clients.
Broadcasters who operated in a comfortable Federal Communications Commission--enforced bubble, have been forced into the uncertainty of an unscripted, mostly unregulated world.
The internet has merged all communications--print, audio, and video--into a distribution system that is accessed directly by the end user. Many assets have become liabilities, and skills have become detrimental in dealing with new technology.
It is obvious we can't totally shelve our core strengths or turn off our current means of financial support. The farm audience we've served for generations is still there, looking for information that benefits their businesses while satisfying their personal interests. Technology has just empowered them to use other means to find it.
The strength of farm broadcasting is its journalistic credibility. The internet is full of experts, advocates, trolls, and bots ... but farmers still want to deal with entities who cover relevant news objectively and with depth of understanding.
They desire "informed voices" that are authoritative and compassionate. Farm broadcasters have a symbiotic relationship with our audience that is worthy of our best efforts to preserve it.
The communications industry's newest challenge is in "selling" its internet-based services rather than giving them away Traditional media rarely is rewarded for selling non-traditionally. Few can draw a solid line from their newsletters and social media postings to revenue.
Users of the internet are wide ranging in their level of sophistication, but most believe they don't have to pay for information access nor do they have to endure commercials. Our life blood has been sponsor's messages, melded together with programming. The traditional audience understood it had to allow interruption for the advertiser's message.
The companies who placed advertising saw the value of intrusiveness; repetition would show a positive response in the marketplace. Internet users have little loyalty to sponsors. The advertiser, who once paid a fair price for the right to air a commercial message on traditional media, now resists paying for internet-based advertising without proof of uptake by the target audience.
This is not the first time farm broadcasting has faced this challenge. NAFB started to survey farmers in the early 1970s to determine their listening habits. Agricultural media research reached a high level of credibility by the 1990s, but internet distribution has now caused consternation and sizable cost to verify users.
Radio should be a dinosaur and near extinction, but it has evolved into a bird that can thrive in new environments. NAFB research shows young farmers are as likely to listen to farm radio as the older generations, but they also use podcasts and social media just like the rest of their generation. We've got their ears, but we need to get their eyes for a part of their day ... and we have to prove it.
Farm broadcasting must rely on its strengths: mobility, immediacy of coverage, and credibility. We must realize technology does not make a news story, reporters do. We must transition to a mindset that includes social media to send them to our websites where we encourage multi-level gleaning of news stories. The website is the new transmitter we use to offer headlines and depth to every story.
Like our farmers and agribusinesses, we are competing in a rapidly changing world with the prospect of failing looming large.
More than ever before, our future is in our hands.
Ken Root is with the Iowa Agribusiness Radio Network. He served as NAFB President in 1986 and as Executive Director of NAFB from 2002 to 2005. He hosted Agri-Talk from 1994 to 2001.