Herald JournalHerald Journal, Feb. 16, 2004

WCCO drops ag reporting, although demand is there

By Paul Maravelas

WCCO radio recently discontinued its regular agricultural reports, citing a drop in agricultural advertising and a change in the way farmers seek information about prices and conditions.

The station is the largest in Minnesota, reaching into almost every part of the state.

Before it dropped the programming, the station issued hourly agricultural reports every weekday between 5 a.m. and 4 p.m., each lasting about a minute.

WCCO General Manager Dick Carlson said the station hasn't stopped serving rural Minnesota and is "sensitive to the heritage of WCCO radio," but times have changed.

Agricultural advertising at the station has dropped by 75 percent during the last few years, Carlson said. While farming is just as important in the area, advertisers have shifted from radio to TV and other media, and some multi-faceted companies have shifted their advertising dollars away from agriculture into other markets, according to Carlson.

Mike Parry, general manager of a group of Linder Radio stations that includes KWOM in Watertown, agreed.

Business consolidations have reduced the number of large seed and chemical companies, Parry said, and the number of "key players" has dropped from 20 to 10. As a result, the businesses don't need to advertise as much as they once did.

And farm programming is expensive, Parry said, because agricultural reporters travel extensively to cover the beat. Linder Radio Network agricultural reporter Lynn Ketelsen said he has attended more than 3,000 farm meetings in Minnesota since he began broadcasting in the state 28 years ago, and he's traveled internationally as well. He said he's seen dramatic changes in that time.

"Farmers are more learned, more interested in international affairs, and they want analysis. They now want information on what is moving the markets." Ketelsen's reporting has expanded to cover crop conditions in Brazil and market prices in China, he said.

Weather reports have also become more demanding, Ketelsen said. When he began in broadcasting, only local weather was reported. Today, farmers want information on all crop-growing areas, including Argentina and Brazil.

"Our competitors say we're ignoring the farmer" WCCO's Carlson said, "but WCCO reaches the entire state, and rural families still listen to WCCO for the same reason that metro listeners do."

What has changed, Carlson said, is that farmers now have access to the Internet, faxes, and other specialized services for agricultural information. "In fact, farmers now get information the same way we do."

Others in the industry question if the work involved in collecting agricultural information simply began to outweigh the cost for WCCO.

"Sources of information have shrunk, and we now have to go out and get information," reporter Ketelsen noted. WCCO reportedly had a small share of the agricultural market, with strong competition from Linder Radio and the Minnesota Farm Network, both based in rural areas of the state.

WCCO's agricultural programming may also have been turning away listeners who aren't connected to farming, said Jim Bartels, general manager of KDUZ AM and KARP FM in Hutchinson, and a vice president at Ingstad Broadcasting in the Twin Cities. "WCCO's base is changing: it's now primarily in the metro. It's not as rural as it used to be."

Without strong revenues, any loss of listeners is hard to justify, Bartels said.

His Hutchinson stations serve an area that still has a farm audience, but it's also a rural area, where "non-farm people are a lot more understanding, and accept farm programming better."

Bartels says his stations limit agricultural reporting to short segments, typically about three minutes long. The stations air few reports longer than 10 minutes. On the AM station, they typically air 13 farm programs each day; on the FM, they air five.

Bartels conceded that farm revenues from nationally-based companies are down for his stations too, which used to make about half their agricultural sales to national concerns.

The decline has affected radio, print, and TV, he said. "There are fewer farmers to reach," Bartels notes, "and marketing has gone direct to the prospect, with salespeople actually driving up the driveway of the farms."

Radio continues to be an important element among several sources of information for farmers, said owner and General Manager Joe Carlson of KRWC radio in Buffalo.

He acknowledged that farmers are both fewer in number and more sophisticated about getting information, but he said that his station will continue to provide Minnesota Farm Network reports, which it broadcasts several times a day, with a 20 minute segment aired at 12:30 p.m.

Because farmers are mobile and radio broadcasts are everywhere, radio will likely be used by farmers for a long time to come.

"Radio is a business partner for farmers during the day" noted Ketelsen. "They wake up to it, and it's in their tractor, pickup, and combine."

Paul Neaton, who farms in Wright County's Woodland Township and operates a trucking business, says that half the farmers in the area use subscription-based reporting services received from satellites. Some information has recently become available on cell phones.

Farmers primarily want current weather and market prices, Neaton said; "you have a price you're looking for." Commodity sales are often made to buyers immediately by telephone when the price is right, he explained.

Neaton has used a satellite system for years, paying about $600 annually. But he also knows which radio stations broadcast agricultural news at which times, and habitually tunes to stations with agricultural news when working in fields, travelling, or working in his shop.

Several local radio station staff said that listeners appreciate the agricultural programs, and listeners aren't limited to active farmers. Some who have left farming, including those who grew up on farms, listen regularly to agricultural news.

Response to the change at WCCO was modest; the station received only 30 or 40 letters and about 40 phone calls from its listeners in response, according to WCCO's Carlson. He said that agriculture will still be reported on the station when significant stories develop.

Former Agricultural Director Roger Strom, one of two agricultural directors, is still with the company, and will continue to report on agriculture as needed for WCCO.

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