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Nebraska's impressive communicators

Monday, February 27, 2012

When rural Americans really need local news they turn to their community newspapers and local radio stations. While, television also does a good job, most rural areas are without their own TV stations, so the residents rely on hometown papers and radio stations. We saw this last year during the flooding that destroyed homes, farms, businesses, roads and bridges. Local communicators were on the job keeping their readers and audiences informed.

There has long been a tie between local radio and newspapers in Nebraska, which got me to thinking as I spoke to representatives of some 2,000 local radio stations who were visiting Washington, D.C. this past week. I took the opportunity to give them a little Nebraska history lesson of how our communicators get it done in rural areas.

Newspapers Were 1st Broadcasters

In 1922, three newspaper publishers established Nebraska's first commercially-owned radio stations in their home communities: Lincoln, Hastings and Norfolk.

The Lincoln and Hastings stations didn't last two years, but WJAG in Norfolk has been continuously broadcasting ever since.

Of course, nobody in Norfolk had a radio receiver at that time, so The Norfolk Daily News ran daily full-page ads offering a few free radio sets, and listing local retailers where people could buy them.

A Legend is Born

Karl Stefan, the newspaper's city editor, was the first announcer on the station. He began his daily broadcast with a trademark greeting: "Hello friends. Hello everybody! You are listening to WJAG, The Norfolk Daily News station and we're located AT Norfolk, IN Nebraska."

Stefan encouraged contact from his listeners and invited them to become members of his "lunch-hour radio family," gathered around a mythical dinner table.

Stefan would discuss local affairs, read pieces of information from the Daily News, and he was the first to broadcast the Associated Press newspaper wire over the radio in Nebraska.

In October 1922, Stefan was one of the first to broadcast a simulated play-by-play of baseball's World Series, which he reconstructed from wire accounts -- even adding his own in-studio sound effects.

Karl Stefan's efforts to serve his listeners paid off. By early 1924, one thousand listeners requested seats at WJAG's family table.

In 1926, there were twenty thousand members of the radio family, and by 1932, nearly one hundred thousand listeners had contacted the station for membership.

In serving rural Northeast Nebraskans, Radio Digest wrote that WJAG, "eliminated distance and brought scattered house holders into a neighborhood community."

Stefan did such a good job serving the people of Northeast Nebraska that they drafted him and elected him to Congress in 1934.

WJAG's station manager explained "Karl did not seek the office of Congressman. It sought him."

We Could Use More Karl Stefans

Karl Stefan was an FDR supporter who was elected as a Republican.

He refused to sling political mud and said his goal was good policy, "whether it was proposed by Republicans or Democrats, which ... is for the best interests of the people of this district."

Frankly, we could use more people like Karl Stefan in Washington today, working for the best interests of our country. We need that because the challenges we face--from the economy to infrastructure, education to the environment, the debt to foreign policy--demand partnerships, not partisanship, if we are going to win the future.


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