Zortman Bringing People Together Through COVID-19 Broadcasts

The role of the farm broadcaster varies daily during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’ve learned through my 53 years of reporting, consulting, and supervising to look at the whole picture not just the political side that is convenient,” said Bill Zortman (KELO-AM Radio, Sioux Falls, South Dakota). “In our COVID-19 day-by-day coverage, we have found ways to be a cheerleader or a matchmaker and to be empathetic for what we are all going through. Those in our farm-broadcasting business are often surprised with the leaders that we get on the show and how they fit together to tell stories every day.

“Two months ago, I collapsed in front of 150 people in the South Dakota governor’s residence while participating in a media event. Quite unexpectedly, I drew the attention of medics, the secretary of health, the lieutenant governor, and the governor. Little did I know that our paths for the next few months would have us working together for the health of all those around us.

“One of the best results was to bring South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem on the air with Nancy Reynosa of Que Pasa, a non-profit organization that works with the 60 nationalities at Smithfield Foods in Sioux Falls. After Reynosa was on my show with the governor, she was called by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) wanting to help her put clean-up instructions for Smithfield in 100 or so different languages. As a result, a Zoom video meeting with CDC and the state department of health discussed those language barriers to get their insight on the plant and what they believed needed to be done for safety. Plant employees there have died from coronavirus. The hope was that others like Reynosa in Worthington, Minnesota; Dakota City, Nebraska; and Waterloo and Columbus Junction, Iowa, could learn from the model we were creating,” Zortman said.

“Pork producers have been on my show scared to use the word ‘euthanize’ about their animals. But more and more, we found others who felt that ‘euthanize’ should be mentioned more,” Zortman said. “As a result, we brought a ‘Pass the Pig’ program to the air for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig. This was the same day that Minnesota Congressman Collin Peterson, Minnesota Governor Timothy Waltz, and Minnesota Ag Commissioner Thom Peterson were meeting the media in Worthington, Minnesota. They were looking at ways to work together with a focus on safety first.

“Language is important, and, yes, we need to open the meat plants, but the safety of our workers is important, too. We do have the opportunity with our ag and business shows to bring people together avoiding political bias and speed COVID-19 on down the track. It’s a part of what we can contribute with our microphones, cameras, social media, and newsprint.

“We’ve brought together Groundworks South Dakota in 104 of 112 schools in South Dakota with 8,700 on-line. The kids are learning, and we give them a chance to talk about being out of school and how much fun learning about agriculture can be.

“To my broadcaster colleagues, I say, ‘Make the best use of your broadcasts, tell stories, be real, and make these days re-energize what we do,’” Zortman said.

Final photo: South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, left, with Bill Zortman