Farm broadcaster eyes next generation with optimism
SEYMOUR – After more than 40 years of broadcasting news about agriculture in northeast Wisconsin, Mike Austin is easing toward retirement.
Currently a news and features presenter on Green Bay stations WFRV (Channel 5) and WTAQ radio, Austin has been working with a replacement for radio and still looking for a successor for television.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Austin began his broadcasting career at Waterloo in northeast Iowa in 1976 before moving to the former WYTL (now WOSH) in Oshkosh in 1977.
Austin's next and last geographical move was to the Green Bay media in 1980 – WGEE radio and WBAY TV (Channel 2) at the time. Ownership and network affiliation changes took him to his two current outlets.
Meeting the public
In addition to his media outlets, which included pick-up affiliates in a few other markets, Austin has made many direct connections with the public through his appearances as an emcee or guest speaker at a variety of events for many organizations.
At one of those recent occasions, the annual meeting of the Outagamie County Forage Council, Austin recalled some of the lowlights and highlights of his career in the area. An early one occurred at the rural Seymour Doxbee's Supper Club, where the forage council met.
Austin had a speaking engagement at Doxbee's without realizing that the facility had two distinct meeting halls. He entered the portion where a women's group was meeting, was offered a meal, and then gave his speech.
Later, as he wandered in the building, he was seen by a member of the former Outagamie Pork Producers Association, which was the group to which he was supposed to speak. He was offered another meal and then gave his presentation again.
On another trip, Austin relied on his GPS to direct him to a hotel where he was scheduled to make an appearance. GPS took him to Marshfield although he was supposed to go to Wisconsin Rapids instead — more than 30 miles away.
On the run incident
An even more perilous incident occurred in late 2016 when Austin was headed to Wisconsin Dells to receive the Agricultural Communicator of the Year award from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. While still at home, mistaken for milk, he inadvertently drank a portion of a laxative intended for a visiting relative who was scheduled for a medical procedure.
On his way to the convention, Austin had to make five pit stops, adding more than an hour to his trip. While on stage acknowledging the award, he quickly announced that “I really have to go.”
In addition to those self-inflicted bouts of humor, Austin was well known for his frequent use of puns, riddles, and other wordplay as humor both in formal presentations and small talk. They elicited a great variety of responses from those who heard them.
At the moment, “these are not easy times” in agriculture, Austin told his forage council audience. “If this were 2014, I could give a much more positive speech.”
Nonetheless, noting it was National FFA week, Austin is impressed with “the outstanding young people who want to be involved in this industry. The next generation is your most important resource. Don't forget them.”
Austin credited the “I believe in agriculture” motto of the FFA in large part to the heritage, passion, technology, and education provided by previous generations. “You've set the table,” he said.
The new generation of millennials (up to age 34) “is not afraid to share their minds, to tell their story,” Austin remarked. He encouraged the older generations to “continue to be great innovators and storytellers.”
Statistics show that 257,000 farms in the United States are being operated by millennials and that 20 percent of farmers have been in business for less than 10 years, Austin noted. In the local area, he is pleased to see (when not covered by snow) the increasing portion of the rural landscape which is green rather than brown late in the growing season – thanks to the growing of cover crops.
Just as huge changes in technology have swept across agriculture in recent decades, the same is true in the broadcasting profession, Austin observed. In the late 1970s, he recalled having to load film in a camera, have it developed, and then prepare it frame by frame with the use of a Beta machine to prepare a broadcast compared to today's use of a small unit, internal editing, and storage chips.
When Austin first took the reins from Les Sturmer in Green Bay, audience research indicated that up to 68 percent of the farmers in the viewing area watched his reports in real time, he reported. That's down to about 8 to 10 percent today but the website access adds about 60 percent to the viewership, he said. “There's no more appointment viewing.”
After 18 years at WFRV, Austin was happy that management agreed to airing the agricultural segments in the 4 and 6 p.m. news broadcasts rather than restricting them to the noon hour block. As in other endeavors, “it's a way to get more out of less,” he stated.
Regarding the fate of agriculture, Austin stressed that the Earth has more than 7 billion humans (plus billions of animals) to feed amid predictions of up to 9 billion humans by 2050. As the number of humans in an economic middle class continues to increase, especially in Southeast Asia, many of them will be “eating more protein. You're providing the protein,” he pointed out.
As a number of trade disputes linger with former top importing countries, Austin commended the export councils of commodities for striving to reach new markets. He noted that trade practices, labor, and transportation are current challenges that need to be overcome for agriculture “to be vibrant.”
Beyond that, Austin noted that “weather and politics will continue to be wild cards” for farmers.
Whatever the economic status of agriculture, Austin reminded his audience that “you have an important story to tell. You are the best storytellers.”
After Austin concluded his remarks with an “On Wisconsin, Agriculture” salute, a letter of thanks and recollection from Outagamie County Extension Service agent Kevin Jarek was read to the forage council crowd by council member Todd Schaumberg of Tilth Agronomy.
Jarek, who is recovering from a serious head injury suffered during a fall on ice in late 2018, pointed out how he had collaborated with Austin multiple times over 20 years for broadcast episodes updating crop conditions in the area.
Ironically, Austin had been sidelined for a while in the spring of 2018 after suffering a pelvis injury while helping a neighbor during the mid-April snowstorm in the area.