The Archives of Iowa Broadcasting is reviving its Oral History Project. The project is a collection of well over 100 interviews with noted Iowa broadcasters. The project was started in 1994 by the late Grant Price, a long-time Iowa broadcast journalist and journalism professor.
The project has mostly been dormant in recent years following Price’s death, and the death of Dean Borg of Iowa Public Radio who had taken over the project. You can watch many of their interviews here.
Paul Yeager of Iowa PBS and Cliff Brockman, a retired broadcast journalist and journalism professor, have resumed doing interviews. The interviews will also be the basis for a series of occasional articles for the IBNA website.
Most recently Yeager and Brockman talked to Mike Peterson who has a nearly 35-year career in broadcast journalism. He has worked at three different Iowa radio stations: KILR in Estherville, KSIB in Creston, and since 2000 at KMA in Shenandoah where he is senior news anchor and reporter. Peterson is a Nebraska native and earned a broadcasting degree from California State University in Los Angeles. He was the 2011 winner of the Jack Shelley Award which is the Iowa Broadcast News Association’s top award.
Here are excerpts from Peterson’s interview, which have been edited for length and clarity. (Audio of the full interview is posted below.)
How did you get interested in journalism? I was a news reporter for The Rustler, the high school student newspaper. I wasn’t a very good student up until that time, but I think with The Rustler I finally found my niche. I always thought about getting into radio or television, but I think that was my first taste of journalism experience.
While you were at Cal State you had a number of experiences. What were some of those? I worked in media relations for the Olympic Judo events in 1984, probably two of the greatest weeks of my life, being part of the Olympic experience. I was able to get on Falcon cable television in Alhambra, California, my first real broadcasting experience doing play by play of high school football games. And, I had an internship at KCBS Channel 2 in Los Angles.
How did you land your first job after graduation? If I wanted to be on the air in radio or television, I’d have to go to a smaller place. So I left California after I graduated from Cal State in 1986. I got a call from KILR radio in Estherville saying they had an opening for a nighttime announcer. I worked there from 1987 until 1989. I was news director at the station the last four months I worked there and I was about as green as you get. I learned a great deal and made a lot of mistakes.
Then KSIB (in Creston) came calling? My first weekend at KSIB was when they had the Southwest Iowa Balloon Jamboree, which is kind of like the Super Bowl for Creston. And I spent that first weekend covering Balloon Days not knowing anything about balloon races and it kind of threw me into the fire that first weekend and it was a lot of fun. I spent 10 years as news director there and then I also did a lot of sports there too.
I wanted to tell you about a great story covering sports there. It was a 1992 football high school football playoff game. It was at the Norwalk football field, and it was going to be cold. I had a pair of coveralls that I borrowed, and I dressed up for it, but when we got there, we found out that they put our broadcasting position on top of the building overlooking the field. We broadcast the game in a 20 mile per hour wind hitting us. It was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. About midway through the game, I think my jaw started to freeze. I was having trouble formulating words.
Then you went to KMA in Shenandoah. Let’s talk about the transition from one station to another. Two days after Christmas in 1999, Bill Bone, who was the news director at KMA back then gave me a call and was wondering whether or not I knew of anybody who is looking for a job in the business who might want to come to KMA as an assistant in the news department. I think there was a voice in the back of my head that said, you know, Mike, you better look into this. And so, I said, well, I’d be interested in interviewing for the job. It’s been 21 years and it’s a move that really paid off for me in so many ways.
KMA is such a legendary station, it’s been on the air for 95 years, it was started by the May family, Earl May was the founder of the station as a method to sell seeds. To me it’s like wearing Yankee pinstripes. We’re a dynasty. This is a dynasty.
And why is that? How did that happen? Was it a dynasty right away? I think it’s because it was service oriented. As Andy Anderson, former program director and general manager once said, we’re geared up in the community, we cover a large area, we still cover Southwest Iowa and Northwest Missouri, and Southeast Nebraska. And regional and local content was always very important.
A few years ago, Ed May Jr. sold the station. And he made sure that he sold it to a group of people here in Shenandoah, local owners, a group of local folks who wanted to keep the station alive. And he did not want to see that station bought out by some major conglomerate. So I think it’s just the local flavor that’s always really sustained KMA over the years and why people still turn to the station to this day.
When you think about the state of journalism from when you were a high school kid in Fremont, to a college student in California to a multi-stop radio news person, has the state of journalism changed over your career? And if it has, for the better? In some ways it hasn’t. You still want to get things right, you still want to be accurate, you still want to be fair, the basics of news writing: accuracy, brevity and clarity, those ideals and those standards are still there, you still want to get everything right and do a good job, not be perfect, but do a good job. The number one thing that has changed the years is the technology. I mentioned earlier that when I started back in Estherville, and in Creston, we had cart machines, we had cassettes, reel to reel. And now we have computers, we have digital recorders, these digital recorders that are the size of a cigarette lighter.
Another big challenge right now that we’re facing in journalism is the social media, having to contend with Facebook, and Twitter, the information that goes out from people that don’t hold up to journalism ideals. And that’s a major challenge and especially true over the last year with trying to cover COVID-19 and trying to get accurate information out about the virus.
I think that the criticism (of journalists) has gone up dramatically over the last few years. Judging from what some of my colleagues have told me they’re facing a lot more heat than they used to. I think it started well before the previous presidential administration. And it’s all filtered down to the local area, we’re all facing a lot more criticism. But I think if we continue to hold to our ideals and realize that 98 percent of the people in this business want to get it right and want to do a great job for their station and therefore, for their community, if we just hold to our ideals and hold on to why we love the job and why we love this business. That’s how we get through this.