WILL at 100: A century of programming for the farming world
When WILL-AM made its first broadcast in April of 1922 (under the call letters WRM), it included a talk on dairy farming, “Turning Cream into Gold”. Rural audiences were an important audience for early radio, which was seen as a way to bridge distances at a time when good roads and comprehensive telephone service were still spotty in the countryside. 100 years later, agricultural programming remains a regular part of WILL’s schedule.
WILL’s ag programming has always been practical programming. Commercial radio stations provided entertainment to rural audiences, including such iconic programs as the National Barn Dance on Chicago’s WLS and the Grand Old Opry on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee. As an educational station that for years aired no popular music at all, WILL concentrated its farm programs on information about growing crops, raising livestock and succeeding in the marketplace.
One part of WILL’s farm programming continues to be price updates on farm and related commodities: corn, wheat, soybeans, cattle and hogs, as well as fuels: crude oil, diesel and natural gas. Currently, they can be heard every two hours every weekday, starting with an opening report from a market analyst just before 9 A.M., and wrapping up with the closing prices for the day, rattled off on the air by Todd Gleason at the beginning of the Closing Market Report just after 2 P.M.
Market prices --- bewildering for the uninitiated --- are something that anyone who grew up on a farm might have memories of hearing. That includes former University of Illinois president Bob Easter, who started his academic career as an agriculture professor. Easter says he often heard farm reports from a San Antonio station while growing up on his father’s hog farm in Texas.
“You know, I think it was a source of information,” says Easter of the role of farm broadcasting in farmers’ lives. “Farmers are always interested in the weather, so that would be one thing. But also markets; in our case, it was in addition to grain, and It was also cotton. Then the issue of hearing various experts offer opinions on how things should be done.”
"Illinois Farm Hour" Era
WILL Radio has relied on the University of Illinois Extension for its farm programming for much of its existence. Extension services were set up at the U of I and other land grant universities, to bring practical knowledge to rural audiences. The Illinois Extension took over WILL’s farm programming in the 1930s. For years, their main program on WILL was the 1 PM Illinois Farm Hour.
Only a few hours of recorded programming survive from the Illinois Farm Hour. They typically feature agricultural experts from the University of Illinois College of Agriculture.
A 1946 recording, preserved on a 16-inche acetate disc, features Bob Beeler, who oversaw WILL’s farm programming for the U of I Extension Service at that time.
“It’s animal husbandry time now, and our speaker this afternoon is W.E. Carroll, head of the Animal Husbandry Department, here in the University of Illinois College of Agriculture,” Beeler says as the recording begins. “Dr. Carroll, I see by the program you’re scheduled to discuss the general question of saving corn by feeding hogs on pasture.”
What follows is an interview with Carroll, possibly scripted in advance, about an approach to a serious problem for hog farmers in 1946. Corn prices were high, threatening to eliminate any profit for hog farmers who used corn to feed their animals. After discussing the then-current price of corn, and comparing it to sale prices for pigs, Bob Beeler asked Dr. Carroll about his alternative to feeding pigs with corn, which was to put them out to graze in pasture instead.
BEELER: “Well, I’d like to pin you down now, Dr. Carroll, on the number of pigs per acre on these pastures.”
CARROLL: “Well our records show that an acre of good alfalfa will carry 20 pigs, which are receiving a full feed of corn and supplement.”
((For more about WILL's early agricultural programming, read Katie Buzard's article on the WILL Centennial page here))
The Illinois Farm Hour continued on WILL into the 1960s. At that time, WILL pulled back on its farm programming a bit, although the commodity market reports remained a daily feature.
Then, in 1985, the station’s farm programming grew again, but in a new direction: increasing the emphasis on covering the commodity markets, with the addition of more analysis aimed at helping farmers and other traders make the most of the markets. The change was led by WILL’s new agricultural director, Charles Lindy.
Charles Lindy Era
Lindy oversaw the development of the market-focused programs that WILL-AM carries today: the weekday afternoon Closing Market Report, and the weekly Commodity Week program. His collaborators were Paul Coolley, an investment advisor with Archer Daniels Midland, commodity trader Paul Bates, and University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel L. Good.
“And those three, along with Charlie, set about trying to design something that would be very, very useful for producers,” said Todd Gleason, who worked for WILL as a U of I student at the time, “that would give them a daily flavor of what was happening in the marketplace, and news and information that they could use that day in their marketing decisions.”
Unlike many farm broadcasters, Charles Lindy did not come from a farming background. Instead, he drew on his experience as a reporter, and brought a strict code of journalistic ethics to his work. Gleason remembers him as both a mentor and a close friend.
“He would say, we are neither the farmer’s friend or their foe” said Gleason. “You hear me every day, you might think that’s the case. But really, I’m there to deliver to you information factually that is not bent in your favor or against your favor, because you just need the facts.”
Lindy died of cancer in 2002, at the age of 49. After his death, Carrie Mohr, followed by then-WILL reporter Dave Dickey, oversaw agricultural programming, building on the framework Lindy had established. Working with them was Todd Gleason, who was by then with the Illinois Extension. When Dickey retired in 2015, Gleason became WILL’s sole ag producer, although he continues to be based at the Extension, where he also produces ag features for distribution to other stations.
WILL Ag Programming Today
“Welcome to Commodity Week. I am Todd Gleason.” That is what Gleason says to open every broadcast of Commodity Week, usually recorded a day before its first broadcast on Friday afternoon. “Our panelists today include Curt Kimmel. He’s at Bates Commodities our of Normal, Illinois. Wayne Nelson is with us from L&M Commodities in New Market, Indiana, and we're joined by Brian Stark today, from The Andersons in Mansfield, Illinois ….”
Gleason frequently records WILL’s ag programs from his office, or on the road at a conference or agricultural fair, using his laptop computer, and bringing in guests by phone or videoconference. In this case, he’s using a hand-held digital recorder to record his guests in person, at the Esquire Lounge in downtown Champaign. Business is slow enough on Thursday afternoon that listeners may not have noticed that that they’re listening to a talk show recorded in a bar.
After the program is recorded, Wayne Nelson explains how the variety of panelists in any given month makes WILL’s ag broadcasts more useful to farmers.
“Curt Kimmel’s a chartist,” said Nelson of one of the other guests on Commodity Week that day. “I’m a fundamentalist. Other people use 40-day moving averages. We expose the WILL listening crowd to all of those different things, to help them make their decisions, to whether they wanted to sell grain, whether they wanted to buy an option, whether they wanted to hold their grain. And we feel we gave them what might have been a $500-a-year newsletter for free, from WILL.”
Todd Gleason says by working with the Illinois Extension, Illinois Public Media is able to provide a wealth of information to farmers and commodity traders that it couldn’t provide otherwise. The station does less these days in the way of market price updates and instruction on farming methods. Gleason says seed, chemical and equipment companies now offer more information on farming methods … and commodity prices are now available online and by satellite from services that specialize if providing those prices in real time and in detail.
But when it comes to expert analysis of the markets and weather, Gleason believes WILL has a service farmers can’t find elsewhere.
“There are plenty of sources where they could go find information about the marketplace,” said Gleason. “They cannot find the in-depth analysis and certainly they cannot find the weather or the academic analysis of the markets in one consolidated form, and the way they do, in a single Closing Market Report.
In 1959, when WILL still aired the Illinois Farm Hour every weekday, Illinois had about 164,000 farm operators, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture. By 2019, that number was down to 75,087.
With fewer farmers to attract advertisers, there are fewer commercial radio stations airing specialized farm programming today. But WILL has continued its agricultural programming. Gleason says the way that farmers get their information from WILL is changing, however. He estimated that about half of the station’s farm audience is now listening online, either to a livestream of WILL-AM, or in the form of a podcast. WILL's ag programming web address is willag.org.