Jim Ufkin misses his familiar lunch companions.
The corn and soybean farmer from Hooppole, Ill., about 130 miles west of Chicago, spends most of his day driving his tractor or working in his barn. Lunch was not only a time to rest and eat, but also to catch up on business by listening to Orion Samuelson and Max Armstrong on the “The Noon Show,” a half-hour farm news show.
For nearly a half century, “The Noon Show” boomed across the Midwest from Chicago’s WGN-AM 720. But earlier this month, in a business decision that says as much about changes in the Midwest and agriculture as it does about broadcasting, WGN canceled the show, citing declining ratings and advertising revenue.
Throughout the Midwest, radio farm shows are disappearing, as consolidation ripples through agriculture, reducing the number of listeners and companies willing to pay to reach a rural audience.
In the past year, radio stations in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and North Dakota–owned by Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Infinity Broadcasting Corp., the nation’s largest radio operators–have eliminated or scaled back locally produced farm programming. Often farm broadcasting has been replaced by syndicated programming, such as Rush Limbaugh’s talk show.
Citing a drop in agriculture advertising, stations in Cedar Rapids, Ft. Dodge and Burlington, Iowa, in August replaced locally produced programs with a simulcast noon show from their larger sister station, WHO-AM in Des Moines. But even at WHO, General Manager Joel McCrea said agricultural advertising has fallen to 6 percent of the station’s revenues from 21 percent in 1999.
Largely to blame for the decline is a wave of mergers among agricultural equipment, seed and chemical companies that remade the industry in the late 1990s. Meanwhile, the decades-long turn from family to corporate farming has shrunk the rural target audience.
Since 1999, membership in the National Association of Farm Broadcasters has dropped to about 150 from about 230. But the loss may be most obvious at Chicago’s WGN, where Samuelson held forth for 43 years and became a farm-broadcasting legend. His partner for the last 26 years has been Armstrong. The pair plan to continue their alliance in syndicated media projects.
They were like family for many farmers, such as Ufkin, who considered “The Noon Show” a bridge between farmers and the consumers of their products in the city.
An uproar in rural areas
“Orion and Max were there to keep the urban people straight, to tell them what it takes to grow food,” Ufkin said. “I tell you, this has created a real uproar in rural areas.”
Though farmers have plenty of Internet options for information these days, Ufkin said the radio remained the most convenient and often the fastest way for him to get news about government trade policies or the mood of Chicago futures traders.
But perhaps more important, farmers learned what the numbers meant, said John Hawkins, news service director for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
“What you get from a farm broadcaster is the analysis,” he said. “You can get the raw data from anywhere.”
Samuelson, 70, doesn’t want to sound bitter. He said he has had a wonderful run at WGN, a station owned by Tribune Co., which also owns the Chicago Tribune.
“I understand that there’s a lot of pressure from owners to go where the money is,” he said. “But it makes you wonder about serving the local market and diversity in what you hear.”
Ever since he joined WGN in 1960, Samuelson, the son of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, has heard about the trend of fewer farmers and the waning need for farm broadcasting. Each time a new station manager was hired, he said, plans were floated to overhaul the lunch hour.
“The first thing each of them wanted to do was get that noon farm show off the air,” he said. “But because we always had the ad revenues, it was enough to overcome the argument that the station was losing city listeners during the noon hour.”
Show was a survivor
But in recent years, WGN said it was losing those listeners and, more important, ad revenue. “The Noon Show” had outlived all other farm shows on Chicago radio stations by more than a decade.
“We have a real need to compete with programming that appeals to a wider audience in the Chicago metro area,” WGN General Manager Mark Krieschen said. In place of “The Noon Show,” Steve Cochran’s talk show is being extended.
Most of the complaints that the station received about removing “The Noon Show” came from outside of the 11-county area that covers WGN’s Arbitron ratings, Krieschen said.
“Frankly, there aren’t many farms in that 11-county area,” he said.
Samuelson and Armstrong will continue to deliver one- to two-minute reports on WGN throughout the day, starting at 5:05 a.m. And “The Noon Show” will continue to air on Saturdays. But for many listeners, it won’t be the same.
Faced with the prospect of even less farm talk on radio, Ken Root, president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters, spends as much time pressing radio stations to retain agricultural programming as he does researching new broadcast opportunities in satellite radio and hand-held devices.
A government broadcasting license, Root notes, requires certain programming that meets local needs and interests.
“My concern is that even in places where there is no metro audience, radio conglomerates treat those markets the same as they do the big cities,” he said.
But WHO’s McCrea argues that if there were money to be made in locally produced farm broadcasting, other radio stations would pick up the slack.
Samuelson said he’s answered about 560 e-mails from people upset that the show was taken off the air. He says about 40 percent were from city listeners.
“There’s a growing interest on the part of the non-farm consumer to know more about our food supply and how food is grown,” he said. “Farmers looked to us to be their voice in the city and the suburbs, and I think people in Chicago are going to miss that regular contact with farmers.”