Rivera trial media coordinator gives inside look at coverage setup

Cristhian Bahena Rivera listens as his attorney Chad Frese delivers closing arguments in Rivera’s trial. (Pool photo)

Making arrangements for expanded media coverage of the Cristhian Rivera murder trial was perhaps one of the toughest challenges for the man in charge of handling the microphones and cameras in the courtroom.

Mike Ortiz is the media coordinator in the region that includes Davenport, where the trial was held. He’s been the media coordinator for 20 years, but this trial had much more attention than any of the others he’s organized.

Six TV stations, the Fox affiliate from Chicago, radio stations, and newspapers had all filed requests to cover the trial with expanded media coverage, allowing TV cameras and still cameras to be used in the courtroom. While Ortiz handled the arrangements “on the ground” in Davenport, Kyle Ocker of the Ottumwa Courier handled the paperwork and organized the print reporting pool coverage. Ocker is the media coordinator for the region where the trial was originally going to be held before it was moved to Davenport on a change of venue.

Mike Ortiz

Rivera is the 26-year-old illegal immigrant from Mexico who was convicted on May 28 of the murder of Mollie Tibbetts of Brooklyn, Iowa. The case generated national interest, including comments from then President Trump, because of concerns over illegal immigration.

“We went to like a month and a half of meetings trying to figure out how we were going to do this and trying to prepare and making sure of how many TV stations are coming down. So it was a challenge,” Ortiz said. Ortiz is a photographer at KWQC-TV in Davenport and volunteers as the media coordinator.

Complicating planning for coverage were COVID-19 protocols requiring spacing out of trial participants. Ortiz said jurors were not in the jury box, but instead spaced out in the gallery area of the courtroom. Because of a renovation project at the courthouse, the only two other available rooms were reserved for family members to watch the trial via a closed-circuit feed, he said.

Normally, expanded media coverage trials have one video camera operated by a photographer in the back of the courtroom. A cable from the camera is run to another room and into a box that reporters plug into to record the trial proceedings. TV stations take turns each day providing the camera and photographer in the courtroom.

Fortunately, Ortiz said, Court TV became interested in televising the trial. Court TV is a cable channel that broadcasts trials live from across the country.

“They were excellent to work with, some really nice people who bent over backwards to help us out,” Ortiz said. He says IT workers at the courthouse also provided invaluable assistance.

Court TV installed three remote-controlled cameras in the courtroom that were operated from a switcher set up in another room. The feed was then sent to a production truck outside the building and from there fed to reporters in their cars and trucks parked a block away.

There was one major glitch in the trial coverage, Ortiz said. A photographer from the Daily Iowan student newspaper took pictures of jury members. That’s not allowed under the expanded media coverage rules and Judge Joel Yates became angry, threatening to put the photographer in jail.

Following a meeting between Yates and Ortiz, the photographer erased the pictures from her camera. She was visibly shaken, Ortiz said, but the judge called her a few days later and told her, “We all make mistakes, and she would go on to bigger and things. I thought that was really classy of the judge,” Ortiz said.

Overall, though, Ortiz said things went well. “It was a good experience, and a lot of work just trying to make sure that everybody was getting what they needed and just trying to keep things so that there were no problems.”

How TV stations covered the trial (Clicking links will connect to verdict coverage)

KWQC, Davenport, recorded the trial at their station from the Court TV feed and used the video in their newscasts, Mike Ortiz said.  The station live streamed the entire trial on its website and a reporter tweeted developments. They did not break into regular programming with live trial coverage.

WQAD, Moline, picked up the Court TV feed at the courthouse and a photographer then relayed it back to the station via their live truck and a repeater. At the station, their main co-anchor recorded and logged the trial at her desk. She reported the stories from the anchor desk and reported live from the courthouse during the opening statements and the closing arguments. It worked out well logistically, assistant news director Andy McKay said, since reporters weren’t allowed in the courtroom. The station live streamed the entire trial on their website and You Tube. Their anchor also tweeted updates during the trial.

WHBF, Rock Island, had a reporter at the station record and log the Court TV feed for use in their stories. Chief Photographer Bryan Bobb said he was at the courthouse to relay the feed from their live truck to the station. They did have a crew at the courthouse when the verdict was announced. The station did not live stream the trial on its website.

WHO, Des Moines, sent a reporter to Davenport who was assisted by a photographer from their sister station WHBF. She reported live during the station’s newscasts. WHO news director Rod Peterson says they only broke into regular programming to carry the verdict. “We decided in fairness, it didn’t make sense to break in as others did for just part of the trial,” he said.  “I said to our general manager ‘is it making an editorial decision or showing any kind of bias (by not showing all of the trial).’” Peterson says they did carry Court TV’s coverage of the entire trial on one of their sub-channels. They also live streamed the trial on their website.

KCCI, Des Moines, had a reporter and photographer at the courthouse for the duration of the trial and provided live reports during their newscasts. The station broke into programming to carry the opening statements from both sides, Rivera’s testimony, closing arguments, the verdict, and post-verdict news conferences. “We are proud of our coverage; we were the most committed of any station in Iowa,” Allison Smith, KCCI news director, said. KCCI also live-streamed the entire trial on their website.

KCRG, Cedar Rapids, dedicated two people to trial coverage: a reporter to watch a live feed at their station, and an anchor who worked with a local defense attorney to provide analysis of the “legal nuts and bolts process and how that worked,” news director Adam Carros said. They sent a crew to Davenport two or three times, he said. KCRG broke into programming to air live the opening statements, closing arguments, and the verdict. They live-streamed the entire trial on their website and You Tube. And, they had a daily 20-minute summary of trial testimony on Facebook live during the lunch hour.

KGAN, Cedar Rapids, had a crew in Davenport for the entire trial. They reported live from Davenport during their noon, 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts, with taped reports in their other newscasts. They broke into programming at the beginning of the trial and for the verdict, live-streamed the entire trial on their website and Facebook, and live tweeted. KGAN is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting and News Director Kristen Hamilton says her station provided reports to four other Sinclair owned stations, and for Sinclair’s national morning show.

KWWL, Waterloo, had a photographer and reporter in Davenport for the entire trial. They did live shots for their noon, 5, 6, and 10 o’clock newscasts. News Director Allison Gibson says they interrupted programming to carry the jury’s verdict live. They live-streamed the entire trial on the station’s website and live tweeted. Gibson says they also provided reports for sister stations in Sioux City and Rochester, Minn. “We ended up covering the case from our news vehicle,” Gibson said. “They were emphatic that if we wanted to cover the trial, we had to be there in person,” she said. “To not be inside and yet to be required to be seated in the parking lot is a bit unusual,” she said. “It was about the huge amount of outside interest and capacity and COVID and all of that, I get it, but I just really am hoping that we’ll be able to get back to normal very soon.”

There were no radio reporters on-site at the trial. Dar Danielson of Radio Iowa says they used soundbites taken from the Court TV feed and thinks that’s probably what other radio stations did as well.

Print media relied on one pool reporter and one still photographer allowed in the courtroom to provide information and photos to other newspapers.

Two TV stations digitize old archive tapes

Digitization of old videotapes from two Iowa TV stations is underway. One project involving KWWL-TV in Waterloo is about 70 percent complete, while a similar process is just beginning at KCCI-TV in Des Moines.

KCCI morgue holds hundreds of file tapes.

KCCI part of Hearst project
KCCI-TV in Des Moines has started digitizing its file videotape and expects to finish by mid to late summer, according to Brian Sather, KCCI president and general manager. He’s unsure of an exact number but says there are “hundreds of tapes or more” with thousands of stories dating back to the 1970’s currently stored in the station’s morgue.

“It’s a floor to ceiling room of multiple shelves full of tapes. I think at one point we converted some film to tape, but now everything is on tape and we’re converting it to digital files,” Sather said.

The Hearst Corporation owns 33 TV stations including KCCI and is digitizing all video tapes company wide. KCCI is the second station in the project. Sather says Hearst purchased equipment to convert the old videotapes, then ships the equipment from one station to the next as each station is finished. Temporary employees are hired at each location to do the work.

Tad Anderson begins digitizing KCCI file tapes.

The project will not only preserve the old news and sports stories, but it will also make it easier to find file footage. “This felt like the right time to digitize the video and ultimately put it into a database that’s searchable where we can surface it,” he said.

The public will not have access to the video. Sather says the video will be used on the station’s social media and digital platforms, as well as in newscasts. “There’s obviously a huge appetite for unique and new content and sometimes what’s old is new,” he said.

Archives digitizes KWWL tapes
KWWL donated 2,200 videotapes to the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting located at Wartburg College that include news and sports stories from 1978-1998. There are approximately 130,000 individual stories and programs on the tapes, Fred Ribich, interim director of the Archives, said.

Students Josephine Ostenberg (top) and Anshika Singh have worked on the KWWL-TV project from the beginning.

Work to digitize the tapes began in 2019 after the Archives received a $165,000 grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, secured by former archivist Amy Moorman. The recordings cover news and sports events stories ranging from the OJ Simpson murder trial to eastern Iowa summer festivals, the Iowa State Fair, and the Waterloo Greyhound Racetrack, according to the grant application.

Ribich says the project should be finished by the end of the year. Originally the project was to have been completed a year ago, but the pandemic slowed the process because Wartburg students working on the project were not able to be there as much as planned.

Stories were first categorized, then the tapes were sent to an outside vendor for digitization. Students then began editing the digitized tapes into individual stories.

Jim McKernan, the regional vice president of Quincy Media (which owned KWWL at the time the project began) says, “Being able to preserve the tapes so that people can see a story rather than just reading about it is of immeasurable importance.” As an example, McKernan noted the station recently used footage of the Charles City tornado in 1968.

When the process is finished, the stories will be online and available not only for researchers but for the public and other TV stations. McKernan says the only requirement is that other stations give KWWL a credit when using the file video.

Ribich says the Archives currently receives an average of two or three requests a month from news outlets for videotape. He says the requests are from local and national news producers, including NBC “Dateline,” CBS “48 Hours,” and documentary producers from Discovery, A&E, and the History Channel.

“Being able to more efficiently search our collections for relevant material is a major plus in satisfying these inquiries. And what will be even more gratifying in the very near future is being able to provide a digitized file of the recorded material to those seeking materials of relevance,” Ribich said.

The Archives of Iowa Broadcasting was founded in 1994 by the late Grant Price, a long-time Iowa broadcast journalist and journalism professor at Wartburg.

The Archives hold thousands of papers and more than 28,000 audio tapes, videotapes, and film from TV and radio stations across the state. The Archives is also home to an Oral History Project of 115 videotaped interviews with Iowa broadcasters. In addition, there is a collection of old TV and radio equipment.

Related: Historic WHO radio recordings online.

Northwest Iowa sports voice hangs up headset after more than half a century

One of Iowa’s longest-serving radio sportscasters has finished a 51-year career, the last 48 years at KLEM in Le Mars. Denny Callahan retired April 1, 2021 after calling hundreds, if not thousands of sports events in northwest Iowa. He also worked as the station’s morning announcer.

Denny Callahan, KLEM Radio, Le Mars

Paul Yeager of Iowa PBS spoke to Callahan and these are excerpts from that interview. You can listen to the full interview below. (Excerpts have been edited for clarity.)

Let’s talk about your career. I saw this ad for a place called Career Academy. It was kind of a trade school to teach broadcast radio and television. And so I kind of investigated, got some information. They had schools all over the United States, but I chose Kansas City, Missouri to go to school, went down there for four months, and learned a little bit about the trade. But it was really my first job for Frosty Mitchell (legendary Iowa sports announcer) at KGRN in a Grinnell where I got my real lessons in radio announcing. I really appreciate Frosty giving me that first job because I was green as green could be. I didn’t know what I was getting into for sure. But he was patient and taught me a lot.

What else do you remember about Frosty Mitchell? What did he teach you? Well, one of the things every game I’ve ever done in 51 years I recorded. And that’s the thing that Frosty did. It was a good way to start critiquing games which continued into my days here at KLEM in 1973, and until the time I retired the other day. I used to spend my afternoons listening to them.

What were your career goals when you started? When I got into this, I thought I was going to be the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals one day. I quickly realized who gets those jobs. And that’s gradually where I fell in love with high school sports. I realized those kids played their hearts out every night. They played it for just the love of being out there every weekend, good or bad. And I’m just happy to tell their story and be a part of their life in that respect.

So, KLEM, did they call you or did you call them? I called them (after hearing about an opening to do sports). When I came to KLEM in Le Mars, I planned on about a three-year stop. This was supposed to be a steppingstone, but the Bulldogs won the state football championship the first fall I was here, so that kind of intrigued me. Maybe this team, these guys will win quite a bit. Maybe I’ll hang around here for a little bit and see how far this goes.

How would you describe your style is as a play-by-play person? I’m a storyteller. Every time they start a basketball game, for instance, or a football game, you kick it off or you tip it off. That’s like you just opened a book to me.

I describe. I don’t want to be a feature in the game. I’m just a part of the game. I usually start the game by talking about the uniform colors and I always want to give a backdrop to some of the other trimmings of the event, not just the game. Anybody can talk about the game, but I want people to feel like they’re there. And that’s the biggest compliment I think I can get. When people say, ‘I listened to the game last night, man, I just felt like I was there.’

And your imagination was also an important part of your background? I always like to tell people when they ask, ‘How’d you get started doing play by play?’ that in reality, I was doing it as a kid in the backyard when my brother and I played Wiffle Ball. That was back when Major League Baseball lineups didn’t change a lot, players didn’t move around like they do today. So we knew their lineups. We knew when they hit left-handed, or right-handed. So we’d play one team against another and we were each one of those teams and, and I just did the announcing during the whole game.

Are there any moments that aren’t the ultimate winning that stand out, you know, adversity, things like that and you were glad you were able to document for historic purposes? The Le Mars baseball team had never been to the state baseball tournament. And I believe it’s 2014 and they won the conference title. They won the sub-state beating a Sioux City Heelan team that they haven’t beaten very often in sub-states. They beat them and then it turned out Le Mars had used a pitcher that wasn’t eligible to pitch. Twenty minutes later they had to carry the banner across the field and hand it to Heelan. It crushed me. Kids went from so happy to crying and it was a pretty heartbreaking moment.   

On the positive side, I got to call a walk-off home run at the state baseball tournament. Gehlen won their first title back in 1995 on the walk-off home run down at Carroll and that was pretty special. There was a 99-yard kickoff return that same fall in ‘95 at the state football tournament by a kid named Brad Sysmon. And that’s never been broken.

What are your future plans? It starts with my kids, my three kids are all obviously grown up. But I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time with them, like I’d like to. They’ve sacrificed a lot so I can do this job and do it the way I wanted to do it. I know, they feel sometimes like they were secondary in my life, and they never really were. But this is just a time to spend more time with them.

I’ve got to tell you retirement’s been good. I’m sleeping a little later. I feel pretty refreshed. Not getting up at four o’clock in the morning is wonderful.

When all is said and done. What do you think is going to be Denny Callahan’s legacy?
I just hope they think that I was fair to everybody, whether it was the other team or our team. I tried not to play favorites, because I just knew everybody was there trying to do the best they could. I just like seeing kids achieve things and have success, nothing thrills me more.

Watch videos of other Iowa broadcasters at the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting Oral History Project.

Scholarships awarded for 2021

Three students were awarded scholarships by the Iowa Broadcast News Association at the IBNA annual convention April 17th in Johnston.

The scholarships are funded by the Iowa Broadcasters Association Foundation. The organization normally awards one Grant Price, and one Dick Petrik scholarship, but this year voted to award three scholarships split among the three.

The winners are: Bailey Cichon, a senior at the University of Iowa; Madison Freeland, a junior at Wartburg College; Noah Sacco, a senior Simpson College.

Bailey Cichon and IBNA Executive Director Dar Danielson.
Madison Freeland and Dar Danielson.
Noah Sacco and Dar Danielson.

Documentary details President Hoover and radio history

Iowa native Herbert Hoover played an important role in the development of radio.

A retired Iowa State University journalism professor has produced a new video documentary about an important part of broadcasting history and its connection to Iowa’s only president, Herbert Hoover.

The documentary entitled “Clearing the Static: Herbert Hoover and the Radio Act of 1927” was produced by Steve Coon. The act set out rules regarding licensing for what was then the new medium of radio.

Coon, who is also a past IBNA executive secretary, says he became interested in the topic while researching a possible book about Hoover and radio. He found that much had already been written on the subject, but there had never been a video documentary.

“The reason I got involved is that for decades I had a long interest in broadcasting and then being somewhat of a history buff…it just all seemed to come together nicely,” Coon said.

The 30-minute documentary includes numerous historical pictures and video, much of it from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. Coon also gathered information from several universities, and even from a trip to the Library of Congress. And, there are interviews with several historians.

Watch the documentary

Coon worked on the documentary for two years. He said one of his biggest challenges was that there were no recordings from those early days of radio. “I had to rely on scripts, pictures, and for the documentary I was able to use a few recreations,” he said. 

In the early 1900’s radio was a new medium and there were no regulations. Anyone could go on the air, on any frequency, and at any amount of power, Coon said. It was a sort of a “wild, wild west” with stations interfering with each other’s signals, he said.

That’s when the federal government stepped in to regulate radio. Herbert Hoover was the secretary of commerce at the time, and Coon said it fell to Hoover to develop rules governing the quickly developing industry.

Hoover was an engineer and his background of developing regulations for the mining industry was helpful. “He was very much interested in standardization, how you could make sure things worked, and worked properly,” Coon said.

Hoover wanted to bring that kind of standardization to radio. “When you have the unregulated growth of all these radio stations going on,” Coon said, “and no one saying, wait a minute, you can’t have everybody be on that particular frequency and not everyone can broadcast at this particular power, something had to be done about this.”

The Radio Act of 1927 established the Federal Radio Commission, which later led to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934 that regulates broadcasting.

Many of those first regulations still exist. “The basic structure of radio in terms of licensing of individual radio (and TV) stations, assigning individual frequencies that radio and television stations operate on, and a public service mandate to operate in the public interest, necessity, and convenience still has carried over to today,” Coon said.

“Clearing the Static: Herbert Hoover and the Radio Act of 1927,” is available on You Tube. Coon will be presenting the documentary (virtually) to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library in June 2021. And, Iowa PBS will be using segments of the documentary in its programming.

Lawyer says police are accountable

The public is entitled to details of police investigations, including those when law enforcement officers kill or seriously hurt people, Cedar Rapids attorney David O’Brien told members of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

O’Brien spoke at the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s annual meeting, held virtually because of the pandemic, on November 13, 2020.

He has won several lawsuits against law enforcement agencies who’s officers have killed or seriously hurt people during criminal investigations. In several of those cases, law enforcement refused to release details of their investigations.

In a highly publicized case, the Polk County Sheriff’s office refused to release basic information and squad car dash-cam video after a deputy fatally shot a Wisconsin man following a high-speed chase that ended in Altoona in 2019. The Freedom of Information Council sued, and the county recently settled the lawsuit by agreeing to release the video and details of their investigation into the shooting.

O’Brien represented the family of the dead man. He noted in his speech that state law requires the release of information about police investigations. “We can’t hold the government accountable,” he said, “if we don’t know what they’re doing.”

To encourage that release of information, he said an independent, statewide board is needed to investigate and possibly prosecute cases where law enforcement officers kill or seriously hurt someone.

In officer involved shootings, the state Department of Criminal Investigation is called in to investigate. But too often, O’Brien said, the DCI acts more like a criminal defense attorney trying to find ways to prove the police officer’s innocence. He thinks an independent investigation board could avoid that.

“I’m not accusing people of corruption,” he said. But when law enforcement officers investigate other law enforcement officers it becomes a “circle the wagon attitude that they have because they are a brotherhood.”

However, he said most officers are doing a difficult, and at times dangerous job “without violating people’s civil rights.”

Even so, it’s important for journalists and the public remain vigilant. Complimenting the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, O’Brien said “There are people out there right now that are safe because of the work you’ve done, making sure government wrongdoing is not a kept secret.”

Donation helps preserve Iowa broadcasting history

A $1.2 million gift will fund a permanent position that oversees the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting, as well as the Wartburg College Archives. Both archives are in the Vogel Library at the college.

James Petersen (left) and David McCartney

David McCartney and James Petersen of Iowa City donated the money.

Named the Grant Price Endowed Archivist, money earned by investing the gift will pay the archivist’s salary and other costs. Previously the college funded the archivist position but eliminated the job at the end of 2019 for budgetary reasons.

“Grant Price dreamed of this day,” Wartburg President Darrel Colson said. “I can’t help but think that he’s broadcasting this story, a story of a dream fulfilled by David and James, on heaven’s own network.”

Price was a longtime Iowa broadcast journalist who later came out of retirement to teach at Wartburg. He also founded the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting in 1994. McCartney is an original member of the archives National Advisory Board that was organized in 2004. He has chaired the board since 2012.

The broadcasting archives house radio recordings, and TV film and tapes of news events, newscasts, programs, and commercials. Also stored in the archives are historical papers, and vintage radio and TV equipment. All have been donated by Iowa radio and TV stations.

Read more about the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting

The archives are also home to an oral history project that includes videotaped interviews with numerous Iowa Broadcasters. The project is available online.

When donating the gift, McCartney said “The values that Grant represented in terms of fairness and ethics are very important to remember. Our hope is that the endowed position will allow Wartburg and the larger community to continue to recognize that.”

KCRG’s Bruce Aune begins his ‘retirement adventure’

Bruce Aune is retiring after more than 50 years in broadcast journalism, including the past 34 years as the main anchor at KCRG-TV in Cedar Rapids.

Aune talked about his career shortly before his last day at KCRG on March 6th. Here are excerpts of the interview. The full interview is posted below.

Not many broadcast journalists stay in the profession for as long as you have. Why did you continue working in the news business for so long?
I just have really, really enjoyed it. The aspect of being in touch with what’s going on in the community and in the state, and even beyond that in our country, and having the ability to discern what we think is of value to our viewers gives me a responsibility that I really treasure.

Why did you decide to retire now?
I hit 70 last July. And it was a point where I decided that I needed to spend more time with my wife and we’re going to do a lot more traveling and things. And I maxed out my social security (laughs). So, it was time.

What are your plans now that you’re retiring?
My wife Darcy and I are planning to do a lot more traveling. We are going to Israel and Jordan in just about six weeks from now and then a trip to Portugal next October. And we’re planning to do as much mission work as we can through our church and other organizations.

Our faith is very important to us and we are going to make that kind of the center of my retirement adventure. I think it’s going to keep us busy plus a lot of volunteer work for different organizations here in the Cedar Rapids area too.

You’ve covered a lot of events over the years. Of course, one of the biggest ones I’ve got to assume is the flood of 2008. What was it like to cover that?

Less than a month before that we had the devastating tornado that hit Parkersburg and that was a huge, huge story here in Eastern Iowa. And then to suddenly have this devastating flood was just beyond our belief, but it was a situation where the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids just kept rising and it just kept raining. The Thursday before the crest, I came in in the morning and started working with our morning anchor. I think I was on the air until about one o’clock the next morning. Beth Malicki, my co-anchor, came in in the afternoon and it just continued on for four days where we were putting in these long, long hours, and we lost electricity in our building and were running on a generator.

We again felt that there was a real responsibility for us to really get the information out to people on what exactly was happening. And when you’ve got thousands and thousands of people like this forced out of their homes, not just in Cedar Rapids, but in many of the communities here in Eastern Iowa, it was a time for us to really just shift into that higher gear and take off the neck tie, throw it in the corner, and get to work.

Any other big stories that you’ve covered over the years that stand out?
There’ve been quite a few. (There were) the shootings in Iowa city back in 1991 at the University of Iowa. That was really I think the beginning, kind of the turning point for KCRG-TV news coverage. We were seriously a bad number three in the market when I came in March of 1986 and it took several years for us to really kind of convince the viewing audience that we were serious and we’re trying to take a different step forward and really become more dominant in the market.

Any last things you’d like to say?
I just want to point out how much I appreciate the loyalty of viewers here in Eastern Iowa. The friendship, the kind, kind words that are coming in now with my retirement, it really is very humbling to find out the impact I, as a human being, had on other people.

Aune is the 2015 Jack Shelley Award winner, the highest honor given by the Iowa Broadcast News Association.

By Cliff Brockman, past IBNA president, Jack Shelley Award winner, and Professor Emeritus, Journalism & Communication, Wartburg College.

Historic WHO radio recordings now online

Archivist Amy Moorman holds original recording.

A large collection of WHO radio recordings in the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting (AIB) has been digitized and is now available online to the public. There are more than 500 recordings, from 1938 – 1961, that are accessible at the AIB website.

Archivist Amy Moorman says the recordings are primarily Iowa shows including farm shows, news reports, entertainment shows, and some sports broadcasts by former President Ronald Reagan who worked there for a time as sports director.

There are also broadcasts of the Iowa Centennial celebration. And, there are some World War II broadcasts by News Director Jack Shelley and Farm Director Herb Plambeck, both of whom reported from Europe and Asia.

The recordings provide a “history of broadcasting in Iowa and the development of radio in that time period,” Moorman said. “They’re a pretty unique resource.”

Listen to the WHO radio recordings.

The recordings, called acetate discs, look like large records. They were stored in a climate-controlled vault at the former WHO-TV building. But, in some cases, “the discs were being used as door stops” by people who didn’t know how important the recordings were, George Davison, a former WHO journalist, said. Davison was one of several people who played a role in saving the recordings.

Machine used to record acetate discs.

WHO in Des Moines was one of the first radio stations in Iowa, going on the air in 1924 and broadcasting at 1040 AM with 50,000 watts of power. Because of that signal strength, the station could be heard throughout the Midwest.

Joel McCrae, a long time Iowa broadcaster and manager of WHO, was one of those who understood the value of the recordings.

“I have always been interested in the history of WHO radio as I grew up listening to the station.  In fact, when I was 12, I recorded the entire 50th anniversary broadcast day in April of 1974,” McCrae said.

“The acetates were at risk of ruin from time and we were wanting to preserve the recordings,” he said. So, the station donated the discs to the Archives of Iowa Broadcasting located at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.

 “The material represents the people of Iowa as they were at that time, and how they helped to make the state what it is today,” Davison said.

Digitizing the recordings
The discs “are some of the most fragile formats of audio recordings that we have in the archives,” Moorman said. “We wanted to digitize them to save the content that’s on them before the discs further deteriorated.” Some of the more heavily damaged discs were sent to a company that specializes in a procedure to recover the sound from those recordings.

Moorman said digitizing the discs took 15 months and cost more than $47,000. The project was funded by a Recordings at Risk grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation.

The expense and work to save the recordings was worth it, Davison said. “It gives an Iowa slant to momentous events. It’s a wonderful treasure trove and broadcasting professionals should be happy it’s been preserved.”

Joel Hermann retires after 4 decades in Storm Lake

Joel Hermann

Joel Hermann died unexpectedly on June 16, 2020 of natural causes in his Storm Lake home. Joel was 64. Below is an interview done when he retired August 31, 2019.

After 41 years at KAYL/KKIA radio in Storm Lake, News Director Joel Hermann has retired. Joel and I worked together for a few years at the start of our careers when I was the KAYL news director and Joel was an announcer and the station’s music director in the mid-70s. In 1984, Joel became the news director, a position he held until his retirement at the end of August.

Recently I talked to Joel and here are excerpts of our conversation. You can also listen to our entire conversation below.

Why did you stay at KAYL for 41 years?
I just liked the town. The station changed hands a few times over the years, but all the different owners were always very good to me and it was just a nice place to work.

Why did you decide to retire now?
Last winter I kind of got tired of either having to go out at 4:30 in the morning and remove the snow off my driveway or if that was too much to do, walk to work, which is only about 12 minutes, but that’s an awful long 12 minutes in a blizzard. So, I was thinking maybe before winter sets in next year I can figure out how I can retire. I was going to retire at the end of the year. And then I thought, why not retire when the weather’s still nice? So, I retired at the end of August.

What are you going to do now?
I’m never getting up at 4:30 in the morning again! I have a number of projects to do around the house. I have some volunteer work that I’ve been doing for quite a while at our church and they already put me on the board of trustees my second day of retirement. There’ll probably be some other people asking me to volunteer. And, my parents live about three and a half hours away and I need to see them more often.

Have you been able to adjust to retirement yet?
I got on our website last week and was reading some news stories. I noticed that the city council had met, and it didn’t even occur to me that city council was going to meet, even though I’d covered them twice a month for decades. So, I guess I’m already forgetting things. Maybe that’s a good sign.

Of course, there’ve been plenty of technological changes. What are a couple of big things that you can remember?
We don’t have those old teletypes and typewriters like we did when you were working at KAYL. Besides a computer rather than a typewriter, it’s the digital recorders. I can remember going to a Storm Lake school board meeting and it lasted two hours, and you had it all on cassette tape. It took forever to fast forward and rewind to find that actuality you wanted. Now on digital it takes about a couple of seconds.

How has Storm Lake changed over your 41 years there? I know there’s been a changing population.

When I first moved here it was pretty much all white. Now I think our local school district is something like 54 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian and 16 percent white or what they now call non-Hispanic Caucasian. It’s been a huge change as far as demographics of the town and it has gotten somewhat bigger. There’s a housing shortage right now.

Is that because of the new jobs Tyson foods has created, along with the increased retail and commercial base because of that?
Yes, mostly they brought in employees from other areas. I’m sure you probably never, ever would have considered that KAYL would broadcast in a language other than English. But for the past quite a few years (KAYL-AM) has been in Spanish, so that has made a change.

I know you covered thousands of stories during your time in Storm Lake, but is there one that really sticks out in your memory?
In 1994, a young woman attempted to kill her daughters by slashing their throats and that was bad enough. But then the hearings on her sanity continued for several years and it was probably the biggest story and probably the most difficult to cover. Eventually they changed her medication and she basically became a different person. The grandmother got custody of the two little girls and eventually I started going to a church that the family went to and I saw the girls grow up.