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Minnesota Soybean Business

Strong signals: Brownfield Ag News celebrates 50 years on airwaves

July-August 2023

The original vision behind Brownfield Ag News can be traced back to academia. Over a half-century ago, while studying at the Missouri School of Journalism, Clyde Lear dedicated his master’s thesis toward starting an agriculture radio network.

“Clyde always had this dream,” said Cyndi Young, longtime director of Brownfield News & Ag Operations. “That dream came true.”

But first, Lear had to put his plan into action. While toiling in the newsroom at KLIK in his native Jefferson City, Mo., Lear struck up a friendship with Farm Director Derry Brownfield. The two journalists combined their names to create Learfield Communications and launched after recruiting four angel investors and partnering with nine radio affiliates. In January 1973, Lear fulfilled his dream of broadcasting his own ag radio network when the Brownfield Network hit the airwaves, helping to give a voice to American’s heartland, which Lear felt had been neglected by national media. But it wasn’t exactly an auspicious start for the operation; “good, not fancy” was the company’s motto. Lear signed affiliates, hustled to sell ads, oversaw audio engineering; Derry Brownfield, meanwhile, dictated his broadcasts over a telephone line.

Fifty years later, Brownfield Ag News, a division of Learfield, has grown into an agriculture media powerhouse. Today, a dozen farm broadcasters work with nearly 600 affiliate radio stations across 12 states and multiple media platforms to deliver relevant agriculture news to listeners. Learfield has also diversified by securing multimedia rights for more than 50 collegiate institutions. And throughout 2023, Brownfield Ag News celebrates 50 years on the airwaves.

“Fifty years is a big deal,” Young said, “and it’s grown way beyond what Clyde originally envisioned. We are more than Brownfield now.”

Lear, now retired but a frequent visitor to the company’s headquarters in Jefferson City, developed an eye for honing talent both on-air and behind the scenes.

“Clyde believed in the people,” said Young, a former National Farm Broadcaster of the Year who’s been with the company for 25 years. “He was a big believer in finding the people who had the passion, and taking good care of the people, taking good care of our affiliate partners and taking good care of our advertisers and public relations people, as well as our listeners.”

Lear also cultivated a corporate culture that brings people together.

“For 50 years, it’s been a feeling of family,” Young said. “With Brownfield, it’s about who you are, not just what you can bring, and I think that’s served us well.”

The network has adapted to shifts in how agriculture professionals consume news, while maintaining its journalistic ethics. Those values, Young said, spur legislative leaders and the USDA to contact Brownfield to share their messaging.

“Just as tech has changed the tools in agriculture, tech has changed our tools,” Young said. “The most important thing is, content is king. People go to a lot of places to get information today, but what they really want with their news and information is sources that they can trust.”

Face to face

Mark Dorenkamp, a Brownfield reporter covering Minnesota and Iowa, can attest to the company’s familial atmosphere. When Brownfield first broke into the Minnesota market in early 2015, Young brought Dorenkamp, an aspiring sports broadcaster working his “dream job” as a farm director at WHO Radio in Des Moines, down to Jefferson City for an interview. Young also insisted Dorenkamp bring his wife, Melissa.

“That spoke volumes to me, and was influential in my decision to take the job,” Dorenkamp said. “Cyndi knew this was a family decision.”

The Brownfield team, scattered across the nation’s heartland down into the southern Delta, is built for today’s digital communications world. Each weekday, Dorenkamp, after sending his three sons off to school, logs on to his computer around 8 a.m. and corresponds with his fellow broadcasters to cull the day’s news agenda.

“About 90 percent of our communications is (through) email,” said Dorenkamp, who lives in Iowa.

Throughout the news day, Dorenkamp and his colleagues post stories to brownfieldagnews.com; he also compiles a midday newscast to distribute to Brownfield’s Minnesota radio affiliates. Before calling it a day around 5 p.m., Dorenkamp has already recorded and edited clips to air the following morning. Through building connections with growers and farm groups like Minnesota Soybean – along with a dedication to accuracy –Brownfield draws from a bottomless well of timely information to distribute to outlets.

“Those relationships are necessary for us to be effective at what we do,” Young said. “Partnerships are everything.” When he joined Brownfield, Dorenkamp fully immersed himself in Minnesota’s tightknit agriculture community. He attended events, developed contacts and introduced Brownfield to the state’s farming industry.

“Mark is humble but fearless in getting the story right,” Young said. “He has such good connections with people, and I can’t tell you how much I respect him.”

Dorenkamp has become a fixture at farm-related events across the state, from the State Fair to MN AG EXPO.

“I’ve tried to be face to face with people and explain what we’re about,” he said. “We have a lot of affiliates, but at the same time, we try to be local and have conversations with farmers about their operations. I think we strike a nice balance between those stories, but we’re also looking at the big picture.”

Dorenkamp has established a rapport with farmer leaders representing both the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA) and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council, which partners with Brownfield on checkoff-supported promotions, including the 2022 Stepping Up campaign. Dorenkamp also cited MSGA President Bob Worth as one of many Minnesota farmer-directors he’s bonded with during his eight years at Brownfield.

“I’ve so enjoyed getting to know Bob,” Dorenkamp said. “He was the first person I talked to in ag circles who was really open about mental health. Bob moved the needle, not only in Minnesota, but nationally.”

Worth, in turn, heralded Dorenkamp and Brownfield for engaging with farmers and staying abreast of current events.

“We have a fantastic ag media in Minnesota, and Brownfield has done a great job of making a name for themselves,” Worth said. “Mark, specifically, is fantastic and always asks great questions and gives soybean farmers an audience to speak our message, both on the policy and checkoff sides.” Dorenkamp will continue relying on Minnesota Soybean for insights on policy issues and the latest ag news of the day.

“If I see news happening with the legislative session, I know I can reach out to MSGA and they’ll have someone who can speak to that issue,” he said. “Minnesota Soybean is a huge resource that I can continue to tap into to make sure Brownfield is on top of what’s happening in agriculture.”

By staying nimble and knowing their audience, Learfield and Brownfield are built to last.

“It’s been hard work, but very rewarding,” Young said. “Local radio isn’t going anywhere.”

On the dial Brownfield has joined the broadcasting industry in advocating against the removal of AM radio access from electric cars. Currently, many of the nation’s 20 car manufacturers have removed AM from electric cars. Yet, over 80 million American listen to AM radio every month.

“In rural communities, we are still listening to local radio,” Young said. “It may be all Spotify in Chicago, but out here, we need that source of important information. It’s vital in rural America.”

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