Radio network keeps farm news on the air

The Kansas City Times, September 9, 1986
By Gene Meyer Economics Writer

CENTERTOWN, MO – Urban people who wander into radio range of farm broadcaster Derry Brownfield’s broad Missouri voice might think that he’s rattling off his rapid mix of agricultural prices and homespun philosophy from a cow pasture somewhere.

They would be right. But it’s a pretty sophisticated cow pasture. At the pasture’s edge are two farmhouses, one of which has a nearly 30-foot satellite dish outside.  The dish is connected to a broadcast studio, two taping booths and a maze of electronic equipment, all of which is one of the nerve centers of Learfield Communications, Inc. the first totally satellite-linked radio network in the United States.

From 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. each weekday, in 27 reports a day, Mr. Brownfield and two other broadcasters carefully weave market information fresh from US Agriculture Department and news service computers with sometimes deceptively simple business and advice to as many as 2 1/2 million listeners.

“When your outgo exceeds your income, your upkeep becomes your downfall” is a typical offering by Mr. Brownfield.  More pretentious analysts usually take more time, spend more words and use charts to make the same point on asset-liability management.

About 150 stations subscribe to the service, which is called the Brownfield Network and is one of Learfield’s operational mainstays.  A Missouri news service Learfield offers has 60 stations as subscribers, and 350 more take programs from which Learfield is a distributor.

Add the signal-swapping possible with similar systems nationwide, and the system has the potential to expand to about 3,500 stations, the company says.

In downtown Jefferson City, in two row houses on McCarty Street, Mr. Brownfield’s partner, Clyde Lear, tends the company’s other nerve center, where more than three dozen people run more the type of operation visitors might expect to see.

The McCarty Street operation is the home of Missourinet, which the company says is the largest radio news network in the state.  It’s also a sports broadcasting operation that carries half the Big Eight Conference’s football and basketball games, and is the national distributor for two ABC radio networks, broadcasts of St. Louis Cardinals baseball and football by KMOX in St. Louis,  And it offers Paul Harvey commentaries and as many other  diverse enterprises as Learfield’s marketing department can sign.

The operation will bring in revenues in excess of one million this year.  Profits in the closely held organization aren’t disclosed.

Mr. Lear and Mr. Brownfield like to point out another feature of their closely held 14-year-old enterprise.  They say Learfield may be one of the last communications systems that could have been started on a     $50,000 shoestring, as Learfield was in 1972.

“Even we couldn’t do it if we had to start over,” Mr. Brownfield said.

Learfield’s corporate history reflects some occasionally startling changes that have swept regional broadcasting the last few years.

The company’s basic business notion, establishing a successful specialty network, has captivated broadcasters for years.  Mr. Lear even sketched an outline of Missourinet when he was a University of Missouri graduate student.

When Learfield formed its initial network, the Brownfield Network, it joined the ranks of about a dozen farm broadcast networks.  That group includes the oldest in the nation, the Tobacco Radio Network of Raleigh, N.C., which went on the air in 1946.

But then the industry exploded. 

Of the 43 such networks today, 17 were formed from 1975 through 1980, and 13 have been formed since.

Mr. Brownfield and Mr. Lear and most other broadcasters attribute the industry’s rapid growth to a combination of economics and technology.

“Every Midwestern radio station had a farm director and maybe one or two farm reporters during the 1950’s,” Mr. Brownfield recalled.  “By 1966, they were gone.”

Economic forces are the chief reason that happened, he said. Declining numbers of farmers made it difficult to attract sponsors for farm broadcasts, so station executives cut the operations.

But the stations clinged to a notion, backed by market research, that their farm listeners still preferred radio to other sources for such things as weather and market news.  So where there were networks to provide these things, the stations used them.

“But things really took off in 1972, when we started,” Mr. Brownfield said.  “You had to remember what was going on then.”

What was going on then was President Richard M. Nixon’s price freezes, high inflation and “housewives rioting in the supermarkets.”

“Farmers and farm stations suddenly demanded news,” he said.  The early 1970s were the years farm networks flourished most, Mr. Brownfield said.  Even so, the economically slow years left some lasting changes.  Half-hour or longer broadcasts with farmer interviews are increasingly harder to find on any network.  Most, like Brownfield, broadcast bursts of one, three or five minutes of market information, with some 10-minute, more detailed market summaries and features later in the day.

A quirk in communications regulations in Learfield’s early years also helped the company expand, he said.  Brownfield and the nation’s other networks, back in those pre-satellite years, leased telephone lines to get their signal from their studios to stations that carried their programming.  And for a while in the early 1970s, it was cheaper to lease lines that crossed state borders than those that did not.  So Brownfield, and other networks, began crossing those borders to offer all their affiliates competitive programming rates.

Later regulatory changes wiped out those advantages, leading to some lean years until satellite capability virtually opened the heavens to broadcasters.  Now any station with a receiving dish can sign up with any network with a sending dish.  Learfield switched its last land lines over to satellite transmission in August 1983.

But the added flexibility is costly.  By industry estimates, a single top-quality sending dish and the equipment to make it work costs $150,000 to $200,000.  Receiving dishes, which network owners usually supply in exchange for an affiliate’s long-run loyalty, cost about $10,000.