In Fargo, radio the way it was meant to be

KFGO talk show host Joel Heitkamp in his studio. Jess Mador | MPR News file

For reasons of geography, I’m not a listener of KFGO-AM, The Mighty 790, out of Fargo.

But I was during several stints covering the Red River flooding and I was reminded — again — of the value of community-oriented radio programming, especially in an era where hundreds of smaller market radio stations have either sold out to religious institutions or turned to satellite programming and dismissed the local staffs.

Radio willingly gave up the one advantage it had over every competing media: the ability to connect people.

People don’t appreciate the value of local until it’s gone. And once gone, it never comes back.

Unintentionally, perhaps, NPR drove home that point this morning in its continuing series on North Dakota and its policies on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

It featured Joel Heitkamp, brother of the state’s U.S. senator and one of the hosts at KFGO. He’s liberal, at least when it comes to the issue.

Then the story shifts.

A poll late last year found that 50 percent of people in North Dakota are opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. But the radio is still on, even in places where people don’t necessarily agree with Heitkamp — like the auto body shop John Trandem owns just outside of Fargo.

You caught that, right? In North Dakota, people are listening to a radio talk show with a different view, calmly — apparently — explained.

Vanity license plates hang all over the shop walls, spelling out things like “conservative” and “capitalist.” Trandem often works while listening to talk radio, including Joel Heitkamp, but that’s not easy.

John says he feels personally attacked because of his views on gay rights. He was raised Lutheran, and his religious teaching shapes his views.

Whether the shop owner’s views are changed by Heitkamp — they’re not — is beside the point. There was, apparently, an actual conversation taking place without the shouting and drama.

That’s what a good radio station and good listeners do. There’s a pride in maintaining local connections.

“It’s kind of funny and neat how at the time the same owners of KFGO flipped its sister rock station to FM syndicated talk,” one commenter, apparently from North Dakota, noted, “only to flip it back to rock a few years ago because KFGO was beating it in the ratings. Wish more talk radio was local non shoutie talk.”