Iowa's Clay County Fair Returns

George Bower (KICD, Spencer, Iowa) is gearing up for the return of the world-famous Clay County Fair in Spencer, Iowa. It returns this year after being canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020; it was only the second cancellation in more than 100 years, the first being a five-year suspension during World War II. The 2021 Clay County Fair this year runs September 11-19.

Each year, roughly 300,000 fairgoers attend the event in the small northwest Iowa community of 11,000. The event relies on 600 volunteers, 400 part-time employees, and 11 full-time staff, and it is credited with bringing an additional $6 million of economic activity into the community, not including the cash generated at the fair itself.

The Clay County Fair bills itself as one of the largest farm equipment shows in the country with 150 exhibitors displaying on 30 acres. Right now, the number of vendors committed to 2021 fluctuates daily with some national companies changing travel policies with another surge of COVID-19 infections, while some manufacturers simply are unable to get their hands on product to display.

“Based on the livestock shows at the other 98 county fairs in Iowa and at the Iowa State Fair, Clay County is expecting livestock numbers to be roughly even with 2019,” said Clay County Fair CEO Jeremy Parson.

“At the Spencer Radio Group (Heritage News/Talker KICD, Big Country 107.7, and More 104.9), it’s all hands-on deck for the nine-day run of the fair. Saga Communications has full remote studios with all three stations live on location from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day,” Bower said. “From 1946 to 1998, KICD broadcast from the former poultry barn, with engineers moving the equipment to the ‘KICD Little Theatre’ each year just for the run of the fair, and then tearing it all down again. Current Chief Engineer Joe Schloss used to sleep there overnight to guard against racoons that would burrow into the building through the dirt floor. In 1999, the station spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a permanent building, which then — according to fair policy — had to be donated to the fair board.”

Announcers are kept busy with three or four remotes an hour. They are all live; and if a client is unable to talk, announcers must be ready to fill the two minutes alone.

“We could probably prerecord the remotes; but rolling up on our logo’ed golf carts with the broadcast equipment and antenna ‘just in time’ is just part of the excitement for the client and the throngs of people who stand and watch us broadcast. If that was all recorded, it just wouldn’t be the same,” said Big Country Program Director Rhonda Wedeking (broadcasting from her 41st Clay County Fair this year).

There’s a new challenge this year: the 8-second delay. The adoption of digital technology, though, has made things much smoother.

“Imagine the days when we had cassettes we were passing off from studio to studio. Those were some exciting times,” Wedeking recalled.

In addition to the paid remotes, KICD interviews winners from the various competitions, performers who stroll the fairgrounds or perform under tents, and any other colorful characters they run across.

“One year, when I was doing the weather, I felt a hand on my shoulder,” said Bower, who became the station’s farm director in 2017. “It was Mitt Romney, who was running for President. I motioned him to a microphone, and we had a 20-minute impromptu chat right then and there.”

Even non-air employees spend the week on location, with members of the office staff manning the official fair information booth at the main entrance to the KICD studios. Spencer Radio Group President and General Manager Dave Putnam calls it the most important week of the year for the radio station.

“It’s our time to shine. If it happens at the fair, you will absolutely hear about it on KICD; and with literally tens of thousands of people at the fair, it’s not only important to sound good but to look good, too. Even when our staff are off duty, they know they’re representing us to the public,” Spencer Radio Group & General Manager Dave Putnam said.

One of the station’s most ambitious efforts is mounting a live game show — “The Prices Are Right” — onstage in the ballroom at the Clay County Regional Event Center. What started as a one-time event at the outdoor KICD stage is now an annual draw with more than $20,000 in prizes. SRG Operations Manager and More 104.9 Morning host Kevin Tlam plans and hosts the show.

“The challenge now is to make it bigger and better every year,” Tlam said. “We’ve had some pretty good prizes over the years, and, of course, we try to outdo ourselves with each fair.”

Other station activities during the week include handing out the “recipe of the day” at the studios and handing producers cash for wearing “Proud to be an American Farmer” pins. Also, announcers stay late into the evening to introduce the grandstand shows that KICD sponsors. This year’s entertainers are country acts Tracy Lawrence, Josh Turner, and Ryan Hurd; nostalgic act Herman’s Hermits, Christian-rock act Skillet; and America’s Got Talent winner Darci Lynne

A unique tie to the Clay County Fair is the “Smoky Mountain Railroad” in the middle of the radio station building. In 1947, an exhibitor next to KICD didn’t show up, so radio station owner Ben Sanders went home at noon and brought back his toy train set to fill the space. That’s a tradition that continued and grew with each consecutive fair. At some point, Sanders’ railroad was taken over by the Northwest Iowa Model Railroad Association, which now operates a 30-by-50-foot, glassed-in, air-conditioned display of 21 working trains. The display includes a miniature of the Clay County Fair, the North Pole, and a drive-in theater complete with actual video playing on the small screen. Many families say the KICD Smoky Mountain Depot building is their first stop when they arrive.