March 13, 2005 in Nation/World

Small stations keeping airwaves local

Tim Jones Chicago Tribune

FT. DODGE, Iowa – Some days there are a half-dozen, while on others there might be only one or two. Some days there aren’t any.

But at 8:30 every morning, the newscaster at radio station KVFD-AM in Ft. Dodge sets aside time to read the local obituaries.

These few moments usually draw one of the biggest – if not the biggest – audiences of the broadcast day.

“People have come to realize that these announcements will always be there, and they’ll tune in religiously just for that broadcast,” said Travis Reeves, KVFD’s general manager.

“A lot of people feel it’s distasteful. They don’t want to be given that while they’re eating breakfast,” he said. “But when you live in this town and you see the same faces every day, when somebody’s gone it makes a difference and it should be noted.”

In small, isolated communities across Iowa, at stations too tiny to draw the serious attention of giant radio conglomerates, the old ways of broadcasting defy the cookie-cutter realities of modern radio.

While a growing number of stations are simply automated cash registers with antennas, small stations that did not get gobbled up in a corporate rush to enhance the earnings of distant shareholders maintain an ongoing conversation with their listeners.

They read obituaries, sometimes as often as five times a day.

“A lot of old people like to tune in to make sure they’re not on the list,” said Mark Saylor, news director at KSIB-AM in the southwestern Iowa community of Creston.

They make birthday announcements, including Dorothy Carrithers’, in the tiny southeast Iowa town of Morning Sun, population 872. Carrithers turned 104 on Feb. 9.

“We’re the closest thing to Hollywood that a lot of people in rural Iowa will ever see,” said John Kuhens, general manager of KILJ-AM and FM in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

Kuhens’ station announced the 100th birthday of Emma Dodds on Jan. 31, as well as Carrithers’ birthday.

Every weekday, small stations read the lunch menus of the local public schools. They exchange pineapple upside-down cake recipes and pass along gossip from neighboring towns. Live coverage of local sports can mean junior high and high school volleyball, even wrestling matches.

“We’ll pay somebody in town who knows something about wrestling 30 or 40 bucks to do them,” Reeves said.

Max Landes, 83, who retired last month after selling advertising for Ft. Dodge’s KVFD for 58 years, said he doesn’t know how much longer small stations can remain so distinctive in the face of consolidation.

“Things have changed – and I don’t know if it’s for the better,” Landes said.

“We always did the first-baby-of-the-year contest, and we’d give the couple prizes,” he said. “But this year it went to a gal who wasn’t married. We had to be careful with that.”

Iowa broadcasters are by no means unique. Stations in small towns in the Midwest and nationwide have been airing obituaries and other such personalized service for decades.

A lot of small towns have afternoon papers, or papers that don’t publish daily. Radio offers listeners the opportunity to catch up quickly on the comings and goings of friends and neighbors.

These are, for the most part, stations too small or too isolated to attract the interest of, for example, Clear Channel Communications Inc., which owns nearly 1,300 radio stations nationwide, roughly six times the number of commercial stations in Iowa.

Just under half of Iowa’s 211 commercial stations are owned by conglomerates. Most of the remaining ones are too small to have their audiences measured by Arbitron.

That helps preserve nuggets of broadcasting, such as over-the-air obituaries, that seem to come from another time and another place.

It’s not hard to find Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity or Dr. Laura, who are part of the force behind the homogenization of radio. These syndicated talkers have a foothold in rural America, but they have not stomped out the touches that make small-town radio distinct.

Jeff Stein, a media professor at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, said the cookie-cutter approach that has stations in Sioux City sound just like stations heard in Sioux Center and Sioux Rapids is irreversible, but there are Iowa forces that will preserve such things as over-the-air obits.

“I think Iowa is going to be among the last to be impacted by the homogenization of broadcasting,” Stein said. “Radio really took off in Iowa because we are so isolated. And that’s still true.

“You have satellite TV and the Internet,” he said, “but there is still nothing that beats one voice coming through the speaker talking about your town.”

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