On the fourth of July, 1976–200 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence–I stood in a corn field on a farm near Brookings, South Dakota. I had just arrived to become Program Coordinator of KESD-FM, an NPR station located on the campus of South Dakota State University. Little did I know that someday South Dakota Public Radio would serve the people of that sparsely populated state.
It was a pivotal moment in my life–my first “real job” after finishing a Master’s Degree at Humboldt State University in my home state of California. While working on my degree, I managed HSU’s 24/7 radio station with the help of 75 non-paid students and produced two six hour weekend classical music programs at a local commercial radio station.
But formal education was finished and it was time to “pay my dues” as it’s called in radio. I packed up my worldly possessions and drove half-way across the country to Brookings, a town that Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” fame might have called “the little town that time forgot.”
Upon my arrival, Dale Blegen, then KESD-FM’s news director, kindly invited me to celebrate Independence Day on his parent’s farm not far from Brookings. Standing alone in his parent’s corn field, my first time alone with corn, I heard a deafening silence–utter quiet–except for the soft rustling sound of the corn growing. It was like the movie “Field of Dreams.” But the silence was real, except for the corn.
After playing horse shoes, eating typical holiday food and talking with Dale’s relatives, I wandered into his parent’s house and looked at the numerous family pictures resting on the fireplace mantle. Dale’s mom walked in. I introduced myself and, after a short pause, she asked me only two questions before walking away. “Where are you from?” and “are you married?” I answered “California” and “no,” ending the conversation with Dale’s mom. But it didn’t spoil my visit amid South Dakota’s rolling hills, corn, cattle and people sprinkled across the state
South Dakota Public Radio: Memorable Friends, Lots of Weather and, yes, Public Radio
Despite the cold winters and humid summers, I enjoyed life in South Dakota. I had a few close friends, some from California and other urban areas, as well as the radio station crew These were memorable friendships. Back then, you spent time with people. You huddled together when snow storms hit. You learned to appreciate weather forecasts and their importance to farmers. There was face-to-face community. You didn’t geolocate your friends with Google Maps and smartphones. Friends were where you already knew they were.
KESD-FM’s radio tower, located 17 miles to the west of the campus, covered a small area of southeast South Dakota, the home of Tom Brokaw, by the way. Despite the transmitter’s location, I’m sure the signal crept across the Minnesota border, penetrating Minnesota Public Radio’s territory where Garrison Keillor was starting his public radio career.
When my “Morning Carousel” classical music radio show aired, Garrison was broadcasting from Worthington, Minnesota developing what later became one of the most popular public radio programs. Looking back, I relish the thought that Garrison and I were competing in “early morning drive time.” In Brookings and Worthington, that lasted around three minutes.
As the station’s Program Coordinator, I had the rare opportunity of interviewing visiting luminaries who came to SDSU promoting books, giving lectures and performing
artistically. Clive Barnes, then the New York Times’ dance critic; George Gallup, Jr. of the Gallup polling organization, Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Dennis Russell Davies of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra come to mind.
A frequent guest on my arts and entertainment show was John Kennedy, then head of performing arts for the University. John and his wife Ronee
became close and dear friends. His post-performance parties with artists and the “Brookings elite” are fond memories I’ll always cherish.
I’ve failed to mention a lot of wonderful people who were part of South Dakota Public Radio during my stay: Eric Brown, Executive Director: Jim Boyd, Station Manager, Denny Gale, who became News Director when Dale left, Beth Wolffe, an import from Philadelphia who both handled a music show and helped in news, the KUSD-FM staff in Vermillion, South Dakota, other professional staff whose names escape me and many student interns who kept us on the air.
Next time you’re in the middle of a corn field, listen carefully in the silence. Besides the corn, you might also hear the sounds of South Dakota Public Radio, especially on the Fourth of July.