CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Watching Gale Cunningham do one of his broadcasts firsthand only confirms what his faithful radio listeners already know. He wears his passion, pride and love of agriculture on his sleeve.
“I don’t work a day. I love what I do and I love the people that I serve,” said Cunningham, farm director at WYXY 99.1 FM, based in Champaign.
Cunningham’s support of agriculture and farm broadcasting goes well beyond his on-air daily reports. He’s been a member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting since he started in radio and was recently elected NAFB vice president.
NAFB was founded in 1944 as the National Association of Radio Farm Directors and serves as a liaison between farm broadcast stations and networks and the agri-marketing community of companies and agencies.
“As vice president of the organization I’m proud to represent over 1,500 radio stations and over 175 farm broadcasters nationwide who tell the story every day,” Cunningham said.
“I’m pleased to also represent the allied industry that is a part of our organization — the business people and the businesses that keep us going on the farm as well as sales and management because we need the sales end of it.
“We are commercial radio so it’s important that we have the advertising end of it, but also the management because management needs to understand how passionate we are about the story of agriculture and to be a little bit forgiving of us when we get a little bit pushy when it comes to telling the story. We want that time. We need that time.”
Cunningham’s genuine love for agriculture goes back to his formative years growing up on his family’s grain and dairy farm northeast of Hoopeston, and there were some forks in life’s road before he ended up in radio.
“When I was a senior in high school, dad said there was no room for me on the farm and I needed to find something else to do. So, I did and I was in the banking and financial services industry after college,” he said.
He was Farm Credit Services manager in Douglas and Iroquois counties, and then worked in the Watseka First National Bank’s agriculture department.
“I had a good career of that, and then I lost a son. That was a life-changing experience. I left the bank, quit farming and ended up on the radio,” Cunningham said.
He had some previous radio experience as a basketball play-by-play announcer at WITT, Tuscola, while he was at Farm Credit Services. When he went on to the Watseka bank he began doing basketball play-by-play for WGFA.
His first full-time radio position was at WITY in Danville about 15 years ago. He was there for three years when was offered an opportunity to launch a new country music legends format 50,000-watt radio station.
“I got to put the skeleton together as to when the farm reports were and how long and this type of thing. I took that opportunity and we launched WYXY Classic 99.1 11 years ago,” he said.
“I’ve been in ag radio about 15 years and I haven’t worked a day in my life. I really love telling the story about farmers and their families and their operations — the positives and the negatives — and what makes farmers do what they do every day and it’s become a passion for me to tell that story.”
Cunningham’s notion of what’s most important to farmers has evolved since he first sat in front of a microphone.
When he first started he believed there were four things farmers want to know.
“They want to know first off what everybody else is doing. They’re always curious about what you’re planting, how fast do you go, how deep are you planting, and so on,” Cunningham said.
He soon learned that should be bumped down the priority list of what’s important to farmers to third and commodity market reports placed at the top.
“The first thing I wanted to bring was what the markets are doing. I wanted to make sure the farmers every hour during the trade had someplace to go to hear what the markets were doing. And even outside today’s social media, they’re still tuning into the radio at 10 minutes before every hour where they know that Gale’s going to give the markets,” he said.
Weather is number two on Cunningham’s list of importance for farmers.
“What’s the weather going to do as they plan for not only today but for tomorrow and next week and whether to put hay down or not, or are they going to be able to plant this weekend and this type of thing,” Cunningham said.
Fourth on the list after what is everyone else doing is reporting on new technologies.
“Being in the industry and growing up in the industry I also knew that one of the important things was what’s new in the technology and in the business that could be beneficial to my family or my farm that’s going to make me more economic or more productive or to give something to my family that I didn’t grow up with,” he said.
He soon learned that a fifth topic should be added to the “what’s important to farmers” list.
“That became a passion of telling non-farmers what the farmers do to produce the food and fiber every day, and to educate the consumer that farmers are producing the cheapest, most economic and safest food anywhere in the world,” Cunningham said.
“So, informing and educating the consumer and the non-farm public also became a part of my job and that’s what I try to do every day.”
Cunningham has seen numerous changes in the broadcasting industry the past 15 years, particularly in technology.
“The quality of broadcasts today is just hand over fist better than they were five years ago, 10 years ago. Technology that we utilize every day is the biggest change I’ve seen in farm broadcasting,” he said.
“Another change in the industry is we no longer just talk to farmers, we talk about the farmers and what they do and that’s become so important in today’s environment as farm broadcasters. We have to tell that story of what farmers are doing, what they’re experiencing and the good and the bad as they go through it.”
Whether he’s doing a remote broadcast at a farm show, county fair, FFA event or other activities (with his Ag Force One truck parked nearby), Cunningham is on a first-name basis with many who stop to visit. It’s all about the people.
“It’s a pleasure to get a chance to represent the people that you meet and without question there’s no better place to live and to work than in the rural and farming communities. They’re honest, trust-worthy, religious, and they put God first, family second and then their job on the farm and their other work third. They keep those in order unlike a lot of different places in the world,” he said.