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Farm and Rural Radio: Some Beginnings and Models

by Robert L. Hilliard - PhD, Columbia University, New York


Robert L. Hilliard, Ph.D. Columbia University, New York
Currently: Professor of Media Arts, Emerson College, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Formerly: Chief, Educational/Public Broadcasting Branch, Federal Communication Commission, Washington, DC & Chair, Federal Interagency Media Committee, Washington, DC
Formerly: Professional broadcaster in radio and television.
Has lectured on communications (including radio) and conducted radio seminars on all continents, including radio workshops for NGOs in Africa. Has advised an African country in its development of new broadcasting laws.
Author of 25 books, including The Broadcast Century and Beyond (co-author Michael C. Keith), Radio Broadcasting, Global Broadcasting Systems (co-author Michael C. Keith), and Beyond Boundaries: Cyberspace in Africa (co-author/editor Melinda B. Robins).


The earliest US experiments in radio broadcasting found their principal audiences on farms and in rural areas. What originally was vital information for these audiences was supplemented with and, in many instances, supplanted by entertainment as US radio became privately owned and almost completely commercial in nature.

As small farms disappeared with the growth of America's cities, many commercial radio stations devoted their programming to the more populous suburban areas - the larger the audience the higher the rates for advertising. Government and non-commercial radio services became the information lifelines to farms and rural areas.

Technology made it possible to extend some television signals to rural areas through repeater stations. Today the economy of America makes it possible for more and more farm and rural areas to connect to the Internet. While Internet development is slow in many developing countries, it is advancing, as shown in my new book with co-author/editor Professor Melinda Robins: Beyond Boundaries: Cyberspace in Africa, with contributions from key people from and on Benin, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, and Zambia.


In many countries in the world today, radio is used principally for entertainment. In the United States, for example, there are virtually no more radio documentaries, relatively few of the of America's 12,700 radio stations are news and public affairs stations, and even most of the country's 2100 educational or public radio stations are, like their commercial counterparts, devoted mainly to popular music.

We find much the same thing in other countries with principally commercial systems that are supported by advertisers who sponsor the programs that cater to mass popular tastes and need to draw the most listeners to make money. In too many places in the world today, radio has either lost or seriously reduced its original potentials as a medium for news, information, education, and culture. In part, it is because subsequent media - like television and the Internet - have replaced radio in those countries with economies strong enough to accommodate widespread use of the new media. In part, it is because in some industrialized countries, which at one time had predominantly rural populations, that needed radio for basic information connection with distant sources, the current predominantly urban populations no longer need distant radio communication to solve problems of geographic isolation.

It wasn't always thus. In fact, in the United States the first significant use of radio communications, aside from early ship-to-shore experiments and later ship-to-shore requirements following the lack of adequate radio use and monitoring during the sinking of the Titanic, was to rural and farm areas.

The first established radio operators in the U.S. were amateurs experimenting with the new invention. They were called "hams." There were over a thousand of them by 1912 and many used radio to bridge the distances between their rural or farm homes to others in similar situations or to hams in towns and cities. The universities were the focal points for the development of radio in the U.S. during and following the end of World War I. Engineering, physics, and other science and technical departments in a number of universities introduced in their courses the new phenomenon of wireless communications. As with any new scientific development, it was important that students learn not only how it worked, but also how to use it. Going from theory to application, universities set up laboratories so students could put the scientific principles they had learned into actual practice. The laboratory equipment became the first station. Some of the universities were in the Midwest, the heart of America's farmland. It was not enough just to send out signals at random. As long as the experimental stations were in operation, it seemed logical to broadcast something to someone in particular. Which potential listeners needed most to take advantage of this new, mysterious invention that could bring to them voices and music from far, far away, not on records played on old phonographs, but live, as it was happening? The people most isolated geographically, of course. Those in rural areas, those on farms, where it might literally take days to drive over the rough, unpaved roads at that time to a city or town to get the latest news. University stations began providing life-saving information to farms: weather bulletins from the U.S. Weather Bureau; soil and air information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; market reports on livestock, crops and other farm products; prices of grain, feed, machinery, and other farm needs from dealers in distribution centers; warnings about floods, tornadoes, drought, and storms; news about any happenings that affected farmers; even appeals for help in a crisis or disaster in the general area of a given farm, which would not be known otherwise in time to provide the help; in other words, all the information that farmers needed but were unable to obtain before without long delays waiting for it to arrive via mail or through lengthy personal travel. Very few rural people at that time had telephone service.

Some of the universities, especially the "land grant" colleges that had been chartered for the purpose of serving rural America and which had extensive Departments of Agriculture, offered extension courses through radio for people who were too far away from a school or university to take courses in person. The courses were mainly in the fields of agriculture and home economics, covering subjects and skills necessary for the efficient running of a farm, both in the fields and in the house. It is noteworthy that the critical and necessary role of women in running farms was recognized in the courses offered - not only acknowledging the home economics aspect of the work women did, but as well their increasing field and management work. In fact, during hard economic times when many men took on non-farm city jobs in order to keep the farms going, and during World War II, when many men were in the military, women ran the farms either principally or completely. Ironically - as shall be noted later - in some developing countries authorities are only now beginning to recognize the significant role of women on the farms and beginning to provide radio and other materials to serve their needs. Then, as in many developing countries and in nations with vast land expanses in the world today, these were much-needed and appreciated "Schools of the Air."

Farm radio became the first form of information on the new medium. A 1916 memorandum attributed to David Sarnoff, later to become the most powerful broadcasting executive in the U.S. as head of RCA and NBC, called for the development of a " `radio music box', placed on a table in the parlour or living room" which could provide lectures and events of national importance that "can be simultaneously announced and received." Sarnoff concluded the memo with the words, "this proposition would be especially interesting to farmers and others living in outlying districts."

And, indeed, that is what did happen. In the early 1920s, as radio in the U.S. began to grow, many stations went on the air for the purpose of serving isolated people in farm and rural areas. Some stations were put on the air in cities by large electrical companies such as General Electric and Westinghouse. Others were set up by individuals in small towns as part of their electrical goods or electrical repair stores. Churches set up stations to reach rural families who lived too far away to attend church on a regular basis or other than on rare occasions. A big problem, as it is in many developing nations of the world today, is that in the 1920s only about half of the U.S. farm and rural population had electricity, and battery-powered radios were required. Then, as is the case now in many countries, batteries were very expensive, especially in economically depressed areas. Among the first radio news broadcasts were U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Weather Bureau reports to farm areas.

In 1921 there was one radio for every 500 households in the U.S. In 1926, in only five years, there was one radio for every six households. Today most homes in the U.S. have about eight radios; if we count car radios, that's nine or ten per home. Last year alone Americans bought more than 58 million new radios. As Joel Brinkley wrote in the New York Times, radios are "easily the most ubiquitous consumer electronics service in the nation."

By the 1930s radios has virtually become a necessity for farm and rural populations in the U.S. During the great economic depression and the great drought - or Dust Bowl, as part of the country was called - in which thousands of farms and millions of farm acres were lost, radio was the principal link to the world for poor people in rural areas and on farms. Most of these people were willing to sell their beds and iceboxes and other household necessities before they would give up their radios.

So popular and important were farm radio programs that one program, the weekly Farm and Home Hour on the National Broadcasting Company was a favorite for decades, in all parts of the nation, including cities. It combined entertainment with information. It was on commercial radio and not only served the rural listener but also made money for its sponsors and for the radio network. There were many similar regional and local programs on radio throughout the country. Today, there are more than 100 so-called agricultural radio stations still on the air in the U.S., providing programming to farm and rural listeners, and there are several hundred more that devote at least some time every day to farm topics.

Over the years the use of radio to serve rural and farm areas grew, not only on radio stations, but through the development of an extensive radio service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the recruitment of highly-qualified writers and reporters to prepare and air materials with the help of agricultural experts. More and more of the writers and reporters themselves became well-versed in farm and rural needs and solutions. It should be noted that under U.S. law, the government is not permitted to own or operate any domestic radio stations that reach the public. That law, of course, is necessary to prevent a government or party in power from using the media to propagandise on its own behalf in order to stay in power. Therefore, the government relied on privately owned radio stations to provide air time for the programs it produced.

One of the pioneers in farm reporting, working for radio stations that emphasized agricultural programming, was Lane Beaty. He later became chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's media office. In my and Michael Keith's book on the history of American radio and television, The Broadcast Century and Beyond, Layne Beaty describes some of the services provided farmers through radio:

It may be coincidence that the first use of "broadcast" was agricultural, referring to the sowing of seeds. It is nonetheless fitting because in the early days of radio when rural people lived in varying degrees of isolation, radio became a link to the outside world and a live-in companion for farmers and their families. Those first two radio stations, KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and WHA, Madison, Wisconsin, emphasized such services. Stations justified the use of their assigned frequencies and power by their broadcasts of market prices, updated weather forecasts, information on better farming practices, government regulations, and commercials adapted for far flung rural listeners. In my long career, those years spent broadcasting agricultural programs were undoubtedly the most rewarding in terms of public acceptance. My listeners included not only country folk but urban professionals as well, and one network program (the old NBC "Farm and Home Hour") drew mail regularly from the Wall Street area. On the air, I tried to be warm and friendly with some natural humor, not contrived, too corny or suggestive-no inside jokes. I made as many personal appearances as possible, and this helped build goodwill for the station. Entertainment (music, etc.) and long features, early staples on farm programs before good roads and television, have disappeared, making way for shorter, more concise reports aimed at helping farmers and ranchers (and sponsors) turn a profit.

Indicative of the kinds of services provided farmers by radio was a trip Beaty took to Mexico in 1947 when was farm editor of radio station WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas. Comparable to the current "mad cow" disease problem, "hoof-and-mouth" disease at that time was being stopped by killing and burying thousands of heads of cattle in a quarantined area of central Mexico. Because of the danger to U.S. livestock and the concomitant economic effects on farms and ranches, the U.S. was cooperating with Mexico in trying to halt the outbreak. Lane Beaty went to Mexico with the then-new wire recorder for an on the scene investigation, including interviews with key government, veterinary, and farm people for reports back to the American farmers.

(On a personal note, in the 1960s and 1970s Lane Beaty represented the Department of Agriculture on the Federal Interagency Media Committee in Washington, D.C., of which I was chair. He not only promoted the need for the media to serve farmers, but to serve all isolated groups, an approach all the Committee members took in our reports to the White House.)

In the 1970s, in the U.S., I got to know Cesar Chavez, one of the great labour leaders in our history. Chavez himself was a migrant worker, travelling from farm to farm and field to field picking crops for virtually no pay in order to survive. Migrant farm workers worked under the most horrible unhealthy and dangerous conditions of virtual slavery. They had no medical assistance, filthy housing without facilities, no schooling for their children who also were forced to work in the fields, long, back-breaking hours under excessive heat or rain or cold, and they were charged exorbitant prices for food and other necessities they were forced to buy from the farm owners. They had no guarantees of work from one day to the next, and entire families could work for months and after paying the farm owner what they owed for food and necessities find themselves penniless, with no food or shelter or job. In addition, whenever workers tried to organize, the farm owners would hire thugs to beat them and even kill them. The police and other authorities generally sided with the owners. It was under these conditions that Cesar Chavez established the United Farm Workers union and convinced many Americans to boycott the products of the worst farm owner companies. And that is where radio comes in. Chavez actions may be a parable for application in other countries today where farm workers and other rural people want to use radio to better their conditions. When I was Chief of Public Broadcasting at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Cesar Chavez's union applied for non-commercial - or public, as differentiated from commercial - radio stations in California, where his union had its headquarters and where most of its members worked. Still fighting the exploitation by the owners, Chavez thought that if he could get the owners to allow the field workers to carry a small portable radio with them, presumably to raise their morale and motivate them to work even more efficiently for the owners, he could use the stations for more specific union purposes. If he could establish instant communication with all of his members in the field through radio, he could call a strike at a moment's notice when there was a reason, such as an owner refusing to negotiate for decent wages and working conditions; or he could call a work stoppage or a protest when the workers took ill or were poisoned by the pesticides and the owners refused to give them medical help; or he could deploy the workers when during a protest the thugs the owners hired brutally beat or shot the protesting workers, which was a frequent occurrence. I met with Cesar Chavez and his other union officials and advisers to help them apply for the needed radio channels. Chavez's plan was to give a free radio to every farm worker in his union, with the radio limited to just the one channel of his radio stations. As the use of the stations was discussed, most of his advisers suggested the kinds of programming: information and education, discussions, speeches, and other materials designed to strengthen the workers' resolve and ability to push for union contracts with the reluctant owners. Chavez, to everyone's surprise, said he wanted entertainment, not education and information on the radio channel. He explained that people working hard in the fields wanted something to help them relax, and so would be willing to listen to entertainment programs, but would not likely pay attention or listen at all to serious discussions. Entertainment, mainly music, would guarantee that they would keep the radios tuned in. Then he could be sure that when he needed to interrupt the entertainment with any announcement, they would be listening. Cesar Chavez's practical approach to the use of radio is one that can be adapted to situations all over the world.

In recent years I have worked with groups in a sub-Saharan African country on their use of radio. These have been mainly NGOs who have heretofore not been able to organize their constituents or to provide them adequate information or education on any given topic because of the geographic distances or obstacles between people in a given area and the structures of transportation. Radio offers the opportunity for instant communication on a broad scale. It is not surprising that many of the NGOs are women's groups, suffering under similar kinds of discrimination and prejudices that farm and rural women did in the U.S. before their significant roles and equal rights were recognized. In the radio workshops that I conducted I heard over and over the need to inform women about their legal and economic rights, of which they were deprived by their husbands or by their local authorities. I heard of their need to know where to obtain information and assistance on health needs and on children. I heard of their desperation in trying to learn what to do about AIDS when their husbands refused to use condoms and didn't care about infecting their wives or future children. I heard of their desire to find out about household equipment that might make their lives at home a bit easier. I heard about their pleas to find out where and how to provide their children with education that would give them an opportunity for a better life than their parents. I heard about their need - and from men, as well - to find more efficient and easier and more profitable ways of raising and selling their crops and their cattle. I heard about their need to learn beforehand, if possible, about weather conditions -storms, mudslides, floods, and excessive heatwaves. In essence, these problems and needs are similar to the needs of farm and rural people, including women, in the U.S. when radio first came into use. And, as in the U.S., radio can be a key factor in beginning to solve some of these serious problems.

A number of countries today are relying principally on radio to serve the needs of their farm and rural populations, especially those countries which are principally rural in nature and in population dispersal. One of those countries is South Africa, which, since the end of apartheid, has been developing a series of local or community radio stations. One of the people who has played an important role in that development is an American, William Siemering. In one of my books with co-author Michael Keith, Global Broadcasting Systems, Siemering provides an overview of the principles for stations to serve farm and rural areas that can be adapted to other countries, as well. He states:

Since radio is the dominant medium for the majority of the people, it will play a critical role in meeting the vast educational, health and development needs. Nine out of ten Black South Africans have at least one radio and three-quarters of the population listen to the radio and see radio as the most informative, understandable and entertaining medium. Three-fifths of Black South Africans live in rural areas where over 80% have no electricity. Illiteracy rates have varied from two out of five to 63% in rural areas.

South Africa has the potential to develop one of the most diverse and effective radio systems in the world for the following reasons:

This description of South Africa can be adapted to a great many other countries where radio can be used to serve the needs of the farm and rural population.

There are a number of organizations and associations that provide and support farm and rural radio programming. One of these - used here as a prime example - is the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network (which can be found on the Internet at This Canadian based organization has been using radio since 1979 to help "farm families learn about simple, proven ways to increase food supplies and improve nutrition and health." Principally, it prepares radio scripts, which it distributes free to more than 1300 member radio stations of its network. These stations produce the scripts, with the information in them reaching millions of farmers throughout the world. Its most recent packet of scripts reflects one of the propositions in this presentation: the need to recognize the importance of and serve the needs of rural and farm women. The Developing Countries Farm Network's October, 2000 series of radio scripts come under the heading, "Women are Key to Rural Development." Some of the individual script titles are: "Women Produce Most of Our Food," "Women and Credit," "Nutrition Advice to the Expectant Mother," "A Community school for Boys-and Girls," "Land Ownership Rights: Access Denied-Why Women Need Equal Access," "My Body, Myself: Women Should Have Control Over Decisions Concerning Their Bodies," "Women Working Together Can Make a Difference in their Community," and "It's Important For Women to Vote in Elections."

While in many parts of the world today, the Internet and faxes have become the principal means of communication, in most of the world radio is still the medium of choice and offers the greatest potential for serving farm and rural populations.


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