All ag, all the time

Farmer-owned radio station has served rural Nebraska for 50 years

By Paul Hammel,
World-Herald Staff Writer
Copyright Omaha World Herald;
Reprinted by permission

Lexington, Neb.-Folks said it would be a cold day when a bunch of farmers started a radio station.

They were right: It was about 20 degrees below zero on the frigid February day in 1951 when the "Rural Voice of Nebraska"-KRVN-crackled to life.

"People didn't think we'd last a year," said Max Brown, the station's first general manager.

Now, 50 years later, that unique farmer/rancher ownership has built a station with an unmatched focus on the business of agriculture and one that has avoided the topsy-turvy trends and whims of commercial radio.

Just as it has from the beginning, KRVN broadcasts an almost constant barrage of weather forecasts, farm commodity reports and livestock auction updates, as well as regular commentary from 16 different agricultural groups. Its three farm reporters file live reports from ag conventions from Orlando to Arizona and Lincoln to Lexington.

While other radio stations change ownership, swap talk-show hosts and tinker with their musical format with every new listener survey, KRVN has stood as a solid rock at 880 on the AM dial.

Only when time permits does a country-music song sneak on air. Rush Limbaugh will never bring his act to KRVN-it would take away time for constant news about pork bellies and corn futures, black baldie calves and farm legislation.

"It's all ag, all the time," said Program Manager Craig Larson. "We joke that some stations have a 'song of the day.' Well, we really have a song of the day."

Built with donations of as little as $10-each solicited over kitchen tables across Nebraska-KRVN stands as the nation's only farmer- and rancher-owned radio station.

image of radio host With its sister stations, KNEB in Scottsbluff and KTIC in West Point, KRVN is the only Nebraska station with a statewide reach during daytime hours. At night, KRVN's signal is pointed west. The signal regularly reaches former Nebraskans eating breakfast in California and Arizona.

KRVN listeners can recite the date and circumstances when their initials were called on the station's longtime "Monogram Money" contest. A wheel with letters on it is spun to select three letters. If a listener's initials match up with the letters, they have two minutes to call the station and claim the prize money, which starts at $8.80.

Stories about furious sprints from tractor to telephone to call in to the contest are not uncommon.

The strong signal, a fanatical dedication to farm news and a veteran staff (the station has had only two general managers in its history and has three announcers with more than 20 years of service), have helped make the station a Nebraska institution.

"I always felt as a candidate that if I could land an interview on KRVN that was worth a lot," said Gov. Mike Johanns during a special broadcast on Feb. 1 to celebrate the station's 50th anniversary.

KRVN has been able to stick to its mission of serving farmers and ranchers because of its unique ownership and mission, said Eric Brown, the station's general manager since 1979 and Max Brown's son.

"We're not like other commercial stations. I don't have to have a 30 percent return on investment in this quarter," Eric Brown said. "We say that people get their dividends when they turn on the radio."

The station was born of necessity. Farmers and ranchers felt they weren't getting enough news about the livestock and grain prices to make smart decisions on where to sell.

There were no statewide weather forecasts 50 years ago, leaving folks vulnerable to bad weather.

By 1947, Nebraska agricultural groups had enlisted Max Brown, a former ag professor, to check out a project by the Ohio Farm Bureau to launch a radio station.

It led to a campaign in Nebraska that enlisted donations from 4,755 farmers and ranchers from every county in the state. Each "member" gets one vote in the Nebraska Rural Radio Association, which is run like a farm cooperative, with a board of directors and an annual business meeting.

Lexington became KRVN's home because of its central location. Station profits are plowed back into radio operations or donated to agricultural research or education. Only farmers and ranchers can become members.

"Our bosses are the guys out there who listen," said Mike LePorte, the station's farm service director and one of three reporters whose total focus is agriculture reporting.

"Our reason for existence is to serve farmers and ranchers," LePorte said. "That's why we take it so seriously."

KRVN pioneered the first statewide weather forecasts, paying for daily telegrams from Scottsbluff, Lincoln and Omaha to put them together. It also arranged for daily reports from the major farm markets of the day, which included the Omaha Stockyards and the Omaha Grain Exchange.

The station almost went broke in its early days, Max Brown said.

It lost several thousand dollars after buying Omaha's KOIL in 1952. The station was quickly sold after farmers, due to a drop in prices, had to renege on pledges to finance the purchase.

The struggle to expand KRVN's reach statewide led to a costly $500,000, 10-year campaign, which culminated in 1972, to change the station's dial position from its original 1010 to 880. Only one other station in the nation is at 880 on the dial, WCBS in New York City.

KRVN's daytime signal stretches from Omaha to the Panhandle and from the Sand Hills to almost the Kansas-Oklahoma border.

Although Brown had no radio experience, his staff did. The station's up-to-date market and weather information pulled in listeners, whose bottom line could be improved by thousands of dollars by timing the market or by choosing the higher-paying grain elevator or livestock auction.

Today, KRVN provides weekly reports from 16 farm organizations as well as several rural state senators. Market and auction reports are broadcast every few minutes throughout the day.

On a recent weekday, the station was abuzz with activity. It's prime time for annual meetings of farm organizations; advertisements for herbicides, seed corn and bull sales flood the airwaves; and the Nebraska Legislature's session is in full swing. All that means plenty of programming and little room for music.

Plus, a snowstorm had caught central Nebraska by surprise, dumping up to a foot of snow in some areas when only an inch had been forecast.

"Let's play that disclaimer again: KRVN is not responsible for more than an inch of snow," joked afternoon announcer Don Colvin.

While the radio industry has seen a storm of mergers and programming changes, KRVN's future seems secure.

Because of its unique ownership, it isn't likely to be purchased by a larger chain. Despite a declining number of farmers and ranchers, the station still has the highest pull of any farm station in the country-more than 50 percent of ag listeners in its area. The need for up-to-date information on farm markets and weather is as strong as ever.

"If you're serious about agriculture," said program director Larson, "you need to listen to us, or else you're going to miss something."

United States Department of Agriculture