The heroes of small-market radio

Photo via KXRA Radio

For old radio people, there’s plenty to be wistful about in the Alexandria, Minn., Echo Press’ story today about Dennis Anhalt, the retiring news director at KXRA Radio.

First of all, there’s local programming in local radio stations. There’s the people who spend an entire career in local radio that serves its community (the pay doesn’t usually allow it), and there’s radio owned by local people. There’s not much of that anymore, either.

Nearly 30 years ago, Anhalt was going to take a job in California. But his dad learned he had cancer, so the son stayed. He became friends with the guy who hosted the station’s talk show and, eventually, joined the station and took on the duties.

He says he spent so many years at the station because it was locally owned.

“With talk radio, you’ve got to love your job,” Anhalt tells the paper. “You’ve got to love people. You just can’t punch a clock.”

He says he could’ve moved to WCCO at one point. But he likes living in Alexandria.

“There’s more to a job than the pay,” he said. “There’s this quality of life here — swimming, boating, fishing, golfing. I just love the community.”

A glance at the station’s program guide reveals the backbone of local radio from its halcyon days: the swap shop, community calendar, local news, the farm and fishing reports, obituaries, and the sermons from the local church.

Somewhere late in the ’70s, much of radio became a “just-shut-up-and-play-the-music” format, as slick consultants wrung every last vestige of locality and personality out of the medium. On the AM side, corporate owners fired staffs and flicked on the satellite programming instead.

Once, in a burst of bold creativity, Anhalt announced on air a popular new local attraction: Squirrel World, a kind of park where people could watch the furry critters scampering about. The whole thing was made-up, of course, but the station received several calls from people wanting to buy tickets.

Another time, Anhalt decided to investigate a National Enquirer story about a Lizard Man who reportedly bit off the back of a car bumper in South Carolina. He called the town, talked to people who were peddling Lizard Man T-shirts and talked to eyewitnesses who verified the sightings. The tongue-in-cheek story made national news.

Anhalt also orchestrated a “Peeps Show” on Open Line, sharing fun facts about the bright yellow marshmallow treats and wondering why adults who love them give them to kids who hate them. He even interviewed Peeps company officials.

Not long after the show aired, a semi pulled up to the radio station with enough boxes of Peeps to pack the lobby from the floor to the ceiling — way too many to eat and nearly too many to give away.

“There wasn’t a daycare within 50 miles that didn’t have Peeps,” Anhalt said, laughing.

Small-market radio is a dying medium. It once was part of the glue that created community in communities, requiring a delicate and sensitive touch from the people who worked at the local station.

He remembers reporting bad storms, crimes, court cases and terrible crashes like the van crash on Interstate-94 that killed four students from North Dakota State University.

Unlike the metro media that only sweep into town to get a scoop when disasters strike, Anhalt said the local media are more conscientious of the victims and their families.

“With our news stories, we still do the fatals, the court cases. That’s news,” he said. “But I like to think of news as community building too. We try to focus on the good things. News is not all bad news. If a business goes up or a person receives an award, that’s news.”

In his retirement, he says he’ll miss getting up early in the morning and doing the news.

When asked how he wants radio listeners to remember him, Anhalt paused and remembered a call he received years ago from a man who was bedridden.

The man told him, “I want to tell you that I really enjoy listening to you. Thank you for making me laugh.”

Today is Anhalt’s last day on the job full-time.

More media retirements: Lundgren retires after almost 47 years as sports reporter (Thief River Falls Times)