July 12, 2024

Newton radio stations lose local voices, and the community is outraged

Syndicated satellite programming replaces on-air personalities at KCOB and Energy 106.7, leaving the community furious and at a loss without familiar figureheads

From left: Joe Swanson, commercial production director, has been spending a great deal of his time at the library to apply for jobs after Alpha Media USA decided to terminate local on-air personaliities for Newton's radio stations; Jamie Grout, content manager, is spending more time at his part-time job in Hy-Vee after he was fired from what he has described in the past as his dream job; and Randy Van Roekel, news director, sits on the porch of his home in Newton, the market he was expecting to finish his radio career on his own terms.

Bob Lane has been a longtime listener of Newton’s radio stations, so he found it odd when the local content he had been accustomed to all these years had suddenly vanished. He wasted no time making a complaint, and that is when he learned the on-air personalities at KCOB and KRTI-Energy 106.7 were fired.

As usual, news travels fast in Newton. Only this time, one of the key figureheads in delivering quick, on-the-spot local news stories was now the top story in town.

Alpha Media USA, a radio broadcasting company that owns several stations across the country and had purchased the Newton radio brands in 2015, made staff cuts at many of its Midwestern stations this past May. Which meant that Jamie Grout, Joe Swanson and Randy Van Roekel were taken off the air.

Lane couldn’t believe it. He had been listening to the Newton radio stations for the past 40 years. It was a trusted and an immediate source of news, and it provided entertainment for listeners on the road. All three on-air personalities have been replaced with syndicated satellite programming.

“I was shocked,” Lane said. “How can we go without a local radio station in a town of 15,000? Of course the paper now we only get two days a week, and that limits us there, too. Years ago we’d get it every day. With the radio station you could get the news three times a day. My gosh. What are we gonna do?”

In addition to listening to the news programs, Lane had also worked with radio staff to promote shows organized by the Jasper County Concert Association, and he even helped do some ads for them for Newton Village and Forbes. Ever since the radio shifted away from its local programming, he has not bothered to listen.

All he hears now is music, and it’s not the type Lane really cares for.

“It’s just a major hole in my life because now I can’t get their local news,” Lane said. “I’d say it’s a real loss to the community, too. We’ve just lost a source of local news. How do we find out what’s going on? Or what the school board is doing? Or what the board of supervisors or city council are doing? It’s a loss.”

Community members have not taken the loss lightly either.

In response to the radio station’s Facebook promotions for a four-person trip to Orlando, community members ignored the prompts and gave ‘em a small-town tongue lashing. Comments show people don’t care about theme park passes or hotel stays. They care about the people who supported the community.

I wouldn’t want to win a free trip from a station that just fired their longtime local radio persons who helped support our community and replace them with some piped in music with DJs that no one knows and aren’t here for our community!

Keep your crap. Wouldn’t take it. Won’t listen anymore either. Great people who support and care about our community were fired. We invited them into our homes to get local news. Maybe you should have kept them.

Nope. You fired local talent without warning and autocast the radio stations, so no local info or flavor.

Fran Henderson, a Newton resident and avid follower of KCOB, piped in on Facebook, too. She said listeners “don’t care about Orlando theme parks,” but what they do care about is “local coverage in Newton, Iowa.” In a follow-up interview, Henderson suggested Alpha Media USA doesn’t understand the station’s impact.

“They did so many things,” she said. “Local news and weather in the morning. They cover our football games and basketball games. They have obituaries on in the morning. They’re always supportive of community things like the Fourth of July Parade. Jamie Grout had always provided a commentary for that.”

Similarly to Lane, Henderson depended on both the radio station and the local newspaper to keep her informed. She enjoyed the Jasper County news reported by Van Roekel and posted on MyIowaInfo.com. Without his reports, Henderson is devastated. She doesn’t plan on listening anymore. There’s no point, she said.

“It’s just wrong. Just so wrong.”

THE VOICES WE LOST: JAMIE GROUT

When Jamie Grout was inducted into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame last year for his almost 50-year career as a radio DJ, he held up his trophy and told the crowd: “Not bad for a guy that’s been fired seven times.” The longtime radio man remarked to Newton News that the number has now increased to eight.

For the past 16 years, Grout served as content manager and co-host of the live morning show, The Jolt with Sarah & Jamie, on Energy 106.7, and he also hosted afternoons playing country on KCOB. In the ‘80s, he covered mornings for a few years on KCOB. So he was on his “second tour” at the station.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen ‘WKRP (in Cincinnati),’ but the theme song talks about going town to town and up and down the dial — that’s kind of what I did after that,” Grout said of his first tour at the radio stations. “I’m glad to have ended up back in my hometown.”

Which is partly why Grout has developed such a big following in the community. He was a local who fulfilled his childhood dreams of being on the radio. In addition to his radio work, his participation in local groups and community events put a face to the voice on the radio and further solidified his celebrity status.

Grout has been in the industry for so long he knows how volatile it can be. So he has taken the firing with a grain of salt, because, after all, he has been through this before. Radio is different than a lot of businesses. It so often has gone in different directions, and when it does it is usually at the cost of staffing.

“I wish nothing but the best for Ron McCarthy, who is remaining at the station, and Sarah (Jorges), who is also staying there in sales,” Grout said. “I wish nothing but the best for ‘em. But I hope and pray the people who have lost their jobs also end up with work or end up doing something where they’re happier.”

In a May 23 Facebook post, Grout bid farewell to his old friends KCOB and Energy 106.7. The post generated almost 500 impressions and more than 200 comments. Community members were overwhelmingly supportive, which tells Grout that the radio stations were staples in Newton.

“It’s always been there for people and they knew they could turn it on to Cardinal sports and local news and events that were going on,” he said. “We did a lot of public service things and all that stuff. We tried to help the community. We tried to be ultra-local. And I think we were. Now it’s lost its localism. And that’s too bad.”

Grout is still looking toward the future. Following his termination, he has applied for jobs while working part-time at Hy-Vee. Grout wants to stay in radio. He’s not ready to get out of the business just yet, especially when he is one year shy of making the 50-year milestone.

Technically, he could retire. But even if he did, he would still need a job. Working radio in a local market does not result in lavish living.

“You’re not doing this for the paycheck in a market the size of Newton or Marshalltown,” he said. “You’re doing it because of the love of the business.”

Which is why Grout cherishes his memories at the radio station, especially the people he has gotten to know over the years. Those same people have reached out to support him and offer kind words. It is has been overwhelming at times, he said, but it tells him that the on-air personalities made a connection.

“When you’re on the air every day and you reach a certain amount of people, you have this bond with them,” Grout said. “It’s a friendly voice. It’s somebody who is a companion and keeps them company, and it’s someone they can trust to keep them entertained and informed. There is a level of trust there.”

THE VOICES WE LOST: JOE SWANSON

Joe Swanson spends the first half of his days with his kids, but by early afternoon he leaves the house to find a quiet corner in the Newton Public Library to apply for jobs. At the radio stations, he was primarily the commercial production director, but he worked in many other on-air capacities during his 15-year stay.

He had only stepped away from radio for about a month many years ago when he worked at a local credit union. It wasn’t a total loss. If anything, the change in job only reinforced his love of radio. Swanson started out as an intern in 2008. He soon transitioned the gig to a full-time job. It was exactly what he wanted.

At the time of his termination, Swanson had two, four-hour shows each weekday on KCOB and Energy 106.7. He worries these programs might be the last time he is ever on air. His radio career may be over. Unlike Grout, who has worked at several different stations over the years, Swanson stayed put.

But he hasn’t given up looking for radio jobs. He’s applied to a few already.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen going forward,” Swanson told Newton News in a phone interview. “There’s also a part of me that thinks: ‘Well, maybe another job like that won’t happen.’ And that will have been it. So I guess I was fortunate to have been able to do that for about 15 years.”

Swanson recalled a liner played on air — “Maybe it’s still playing, I don’t know” — that referred to KCOB as the hometown station. It was something staff took a lot of pride in. As did listeners, as it turns out. Swanson felt like the radio stations were an integral part of the Newton and Jasper County communities.

“We had the football games and the basketball games, and our news director/play-by-play guy, Randy, did the first game here at the new baseball diamond,” he said. “We had wrestling reports, state track, community events — all that stuff. And we had the weekly ‘Proud to Know Newton’ show.”

For as much as the radio station reported on hard news and local government action, it always went out of its way to support and promote positivity within the community. Unsure of what the radio stations will do going forward, Swanson is doubtful that local content will return, especially with no on-air staff.

Local content extended far beyond news reports, play-by-plays and commentary. Swanson often worked one-on-one with businesses for radio ads, and it is those interactions he may miss the most. It was a way for him to get to know the people of his community as they learned the ropes of a commercial production.

“Somebody from the business would come in and I’d help them out,” Swanson said. “I would record them and produce their ads. So I got a chance to work with a lot of people and getting to know people a little bit. I had a good working relationship going with a bunch of them. But I also enjoyed being on the air.”

Although Swanson has worked in radio less than Grout and Van Roekel, he knows all too well how quickly and how suddenly they can be taken off the air. Layoffs were always something Swanson worried about. But no matter how prepared he may have felt, the news was always going to come as a shock.

“It’s like when’s the other shoe going to drop? You hear about it and you hope it’s not going to happen and you start to think, ‘Oh, maybe we’re doing OK. It’s not going to happen for us any time soon. Maybe they won’t get rid of everybody when it finally does happen,’” he said. “It was always in the back of my mind.”

THE VOICES WE LOST: RANDY VAN ROEKEL

Randy Van Roekel works harder than any newsman in Jasper County. In addition to reporting on every single city council, school board and supervisors meeting, he provided play-by-play commentary for sports in the Newton Community School District. When he wasn’t on air, he was working other part-time jobs.

For almost three decades Van Roekel reported local news at KCOB. His official title was news director, but he wore many hats at the station. Van Roekel had been in radio almost as long Grout. His first radio gig was in 1984 in Macon, Mo. He then worked as the news director at an Illinois radio station in 1985.

By 1996, he was back home in Iowa and doing what he does best for the Newton radio stations. He has worked a total of 40 years in radio.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever done,” Van Roekel said. “I was an only child, so I kind of entertained myself and talked to myself and stuff. I was always good at writing. Growing up when we had writing assignments the teacher would pick out my writing and read it to the class and embarrass the heck out of me.”

When Van Roekel enrolled in broadcasting school, he had every intention of being a radio DJ. But his instructors insisted he had a natural delivery for a news voice. They also told him it pays more. Well, that sealed the deal. News it is. And as news director he was his own boss a lot of the times, which he liked.

Van Roekel got to do what he does well naturally for so long. In the community, he has an impeccable reputation for his news abilities. He tells it like it is, they say. He gets right down to business, they say. He’s accurate and unbiased, they say. He’s a true professional, they say.

Without him on the air, listeners feel disconnected and less informed.

So many people depended on him, and they never once expected he would pack up and leave, let alone removed entirely by the claws of corporate overheads. Van Roekel was never going to leave a small market like Newton unless he was made to. The small market is where he thought he would thrive and be safe.

“It was a shock,” he said. “People always asked me, ‘Don’t you want to go to a bigger market?’ No! Because your future really isn’t in your hands … Our decision here came from somebody in Portland that’s never met me and has no idea what I do. It’s just strictly financial.”

It was the mom-and-pop stations that he was always interested in being a part of. But the industry shifted. Years back, before the COVID pandemic, all these little stations were being bought by large broadcasting groups. Ever the professional, Van Roekel doesn’t blame the small stations for accepting their offers.

“They were offered a lot of money, more so than what the station was actually worth,” Van Roekel said. “And that happened all across the nation. All these big stations and companies bought all these small people up. The same day we got canned, other stations in Iowa and Missouri closed, too.”

While the Newton stations are primarily powered by satellite content, they are still operational at the offices in the 1800 block of North 13th Avenue East, not too far from where the old Maytag factories are. Van Roekel found it ironic that his mom, who worked in those same buildings, was let go the same way he was.

Only they were about seven blocks and several years apart from each other.

“She worked there 37 years,” he said. “They just called her up and said, ‘Get your things. We got a guy who will come and walk you to the door.’ It was just like that. It was over. Here, we got called in and told the corporation was deciding to go a different way with the small markets and eliminating all local stuff.”

Van Roekel might still see the inside of a radio studio in the near future. At least, that’s what he wants. Working the Newton market was a privilege, he said, and it was his hope to finish his career here on his own terms. He is disappointed it did not get to work out that way. So now his plans have changed.

“It was a privilege to do what I did here in the community for so long,” Van Roekel said. “I said this on the radio all the time, I appreciate people for listening. They allowed me, by listening, to do what I like to do. I hate to think that what I’ve done for 40 years might be over.”

COMMUNITY DOES NOT UNDERSTAND OR AGREE WITH DECISION

Craig Armstrong, economic development specialist for the City of Newton, was hoping the city’s Proud to Know Newton radio show would reach its 500th episode. Following Alpha Media USA’s decision last month, that is no longer going to happen. Armstrong was on episode 477. Twenty-three shows to go.

The host of Proud to Know Newton would regularly bring special guests for a small segment to either promote that specific individual or the work that they do. Sometimes Armstrong brought on city staff, other times he spotlighted community members or organizations.

“It was very positive, community-based programming that talked about hidden or not-as-apparent good things happening in the community,” Armstrong said. “Things that really deserved a little spotlight on their work via government via nonprofit or a business that is doing something remarkable.”

Armstrong learned of the radio station losing its on-air personalities through Grout’s Facebook post. Before he could even comprehend it, he received a call from the radio station’s general manager telling him the news. He was shocked and saddened at not only the loss of jobs but the loss of community radio.

“This is just a corporate, national radio station with a stick in Newton, Iowa,” he said. “It no longer is a community radio station. I feel really sorry for Ron McCarthy because he was unfortunately the unwilling executioner in this situation. He had to deliver the news to staff, who he had worked with for years.”

Armstrong suggested the loss of local radio staff is deeper than people realize. The radio station, he said, is no longer connected socially to the community.

“Whatever is on the satellite is what’s coming in and that’s what is going to be heard on all the stations that Alpha Media owns here in Newton and in Grinnell,” he said. “The radio is our connection to each other when you think about it. It’s an identify for the community and enhances what the community is including.”

Newton Superintendent Tom Messinger said the district had a strong partnership with the radio station. Many people sought out the play-by-play commentary of school sports. Messinger said the district relies on local media sources to get information out to people and to highlight its accomplishments and struggles.

“It is a huge blow to lose the local programming through our radio station,” he said. “The people that work at that radio station are some of the finest I’ve worked with and they’ve never been anything but supportive of the school district. They look for ways to help the school district get information out.”

Never did the radio station ask for everything in return from the school district, Messinger added. While he acknowledges he may be a little biased, he does not understand Alpha Media’s decision. He does not understand how someone from so far away can think losing local programming can be good for the community. Or for them.

“That shows me they’re not concerned about the community,” he said. “Our local radio station is concerned about the community and about the school district. And that is greatly going to be missed.”

Perhaps things could change. Armstrong said there are people inside and outside the community that are thinking through what can be done to preserve local radio or even create a new station. But he said those same people are aware there are a number of hoops to jump through. It won’t be easy.

“If a group of local investors, for instance, with a heart for local radio, could put together an investor group or an investor pool to purchase those stations from Alpha Media and get them back into local control, we would be back in business, so to speak,” Armstrong said.

PEOPLE WERE LISTENING TO LOCAL VOICES

There is an existential fear common among those working in radio. It is a dark, ruminating thought that often pervades their minds while they’re on the air. They do their best to ignore it, but when they’re all alone in that studio the fear rears its ugly head and whispers into their ear: Is anybody actually listening?

It’s a terrible thing for a being to question whether their time and effort has been truly wasted. Even more so when it is something they love to do. Passion is not a wild, undying fire. If left unattended — and it will at some point — the light will go out, and all that will be left is cold, dark silence.

To keep passion alight, it takes hard work and a great deal of courage. It is likely the Newton radio staff asked themselves that horrible question from time to time. If the community support and outcry of their termination is any indication, then they have their answer. And the answer is as gratifying as it is unfortunate.

Indeed, they were listening.

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig

Christopher Braunschweig has a strong passion for community journalism and covers city council, school board, politics and general news in Newton, Iowa and Jasper County.