News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Friday, March 18, 2011

Music was the driving force

When I came to Aberdeen in 1979, the culture shock was damned near fatal.  Until then, I did not realize how isolated sections of America could be  in terms of communication and culture.  I took a job at Northern State (then it was a College) under the assumption that with the nation's extensive communication systems, one would be connected to the larger America no matter where one went.   I was terribly wrong. 

Kristi Noem's statement in defense of voting to cut the funding for NPR triggered strong memories of the situation: she said, "Things have changed over the years as far as having different places that we certainly can get our information in this day and age."  Cory Heidelberger and Doug Wiken have pretty well-covered the mentality behind that Noem-skull statement, but I am struck by the fact that Aberdeen, for example, has less access to information than it did when I moved here more than 30 years ago.

At that time, Aberdeen had two radio stations with locally produced news and music, and it had a television station that had a local news department.  One radio station featured country music and the other top-40 rock-and-roll, but they both had news departments that connected local newscasts with network news.  News provided some connection with the larger American culture.  My problem was the music.  

 I am  not much of a fan of country music or rock-and-roll.  I get quickly bored with those genres, but I have a need for jazz.  I will not go into what created that need, but a few days without jazz is worse than a few days without food for me.  There was no jazz to be heard in Aberdeen and reception of radio stations from afar that carried jazz was chancy.  That included stations in Chicago and WCCO in the Twin Cities. 

One station did have a big band show once a week, but some of the big bands it played were a bit on the schmaltzy side.  The other stuck with rock-and-roll.  However, at that time Fargo had a public radio station that carried jazz 24 hours a day.  Only occasionally could its signal reach Aberdeen.  I can remember when my hunger for jazz became so intense that I got up in those dark and dank hours of the night, got in my car, and drove to the northeast until I picked up that station in Fargo.  When I got in range of the station I would pull over and listen for an hour or two.  I needed to hear some sounds besides what I had in my record collection, not all of which made it to South Dakota.  

When it came to classical music, which I like, also, I never found any within radio range.  Music was a main factor in bringing public radio to Aberdeen.

Before I relate that development, I think it important to emphasize the news coverage that was available.  KKAA, the country station, had a news staff, at that time headed by Mike Marek.  KSDN's news director was Gene Reich.  Both stations covered city and county government, law enforcement and public safety, and the surrounding communities.  KSFY did television coverage of the same.   Another country station, KGIM, went on the air and had a full-time news director.  The broadcast stations also did a considerable amount of news exchanging across the state, so one could get constant information about government and events within the state.  My wife has worked as a reporter for both KKAA and KSDN.  

Consolidation in the broadcast business and changing media eventually led to staff and programming reductions that eliminated any locally centered broadcast news departments.  The only medium in town that does any first-hand reporting is the newspaper.  Broadcast news comes from network casts or reading from the news wire.

At the time public radio came to Aberdeen and South Dakota, there was no lack of news coverage and effort.  There was a paucity of choices when it came to music, however.  During that time, plans were in the works to expand the radio station at the University of South Dakota into a network that covered the state.  The late Jack Bergren, a professor of vocal music at Northern State, worked fiendishly hard to make sure that Aberdeen would have a broadcast tower and that music would be a major part of the programming.   He recruited both moral and financial support for South Dakota public radio, and he created an audience for the public radio venture before it went on the air.

I had enjoyed public radio while living in Iowa and Illinois and, with my need to hear music, was anxious for South Dakota's system to go on the air. I happily lent what support I could to Jack Bergren's efforts.  I was rewarded.  SDPB radio had classical music in the mornings and late at night and jazz in the evening.  The jazz program often featured entire albums.  Now Jazz Nightly is presided over by Jim Clark, who is a jazz disc jockey in the great tradition.  He knows the music and knows how to program to meet the diversity of jazz tastes.  

For Aberdeen, at least, and I assume for other parts of the state, music was a driving force in building the state's public broadcasting network.

KKAA news director Mike Marek became the news director of South Dakota Public Radio.  He covered the state with a thoroughness that no medium had done previously or has done since.  An hour-long news show featured stories from radio reporters throughout the state.  That was a time when news coverage was extensive, convenient, and very professionally done.  It  dealt with facts, not opinions.  

When Kristi Noem says "Things have changed over the years as far as having different places that we certainly can get our information in this day and age" what she said was true, but not in the way she meant it.  Public radio in South Dakota is one of the few professional-level broadcast news sources remaining, and the only one that gives a  professional level of coverage to state and national news.  At this time, I will not go into why I, and many others, do not think that the commercial television coverage is anywhere near adequate or competent.  Suffice it to say that Noem's statement is absurd in light of what has happened to the broadcast media in the past twenty years.  

The conservative movement in America is using the budget problems to kill off any influences that deviate from their party line.  In multiple states, one of the biggest obstacles to corporate totalitarianism, the labor unions, are facing attempts to destroy them.  The thinking is obsessed with eliminating public broadcasting news, which has set a professional standard that conservatives want eliminated.  Their idea of news is the phony contrivances of James O'Keefe, whose efforts to destroy NPR have been quite thoroughly proven to be falsehoods.  

But you would never know if you consulted only the media approved by Noem and those fascist ideologues that call themselves the GOP.


caheidelberger said...

Excellent points. The market does not solve for some important needs, like local news and diverse cultural inputs (note: that's not code for racial or ethnic diversity; I'm referring to simple exposure to all the richness of our culture, e.g. all the music beyond top-40). As you suggest with your reference to corporate totalitarianism, there is some merit to allowing people to access news, music, and other cultural resources without shouting at them every five minutes to buy something.

larry kurtz said...

Listening to Tim Hinkley in 1973 on KESD radio broadcasting from the basement of Pugsley Union and Larry Rohrer when it was still educational tv made the entire world a classroom for me.

The GOP isn't paying attention or it would know that APM and PRI are far more hostile to its agenda than NPR is interested in being.

Public radio is continuing adult education; it's hard to imagine that Kent Conrad and the Senate Democrats will deny rural access to NPR in red states where it's value is best understood.

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States