â€œThere may not be enough resources dedicated to getting the word out about seed money or any other kind of assistance, financial or technical.â€
-WILL News Director Tom Rogers
Hi, Aaron Henkin here, your host for the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. For almost two years now, weâ€™ve traveled together on this weekly podcast to the hundreds of different public radio stations across the country, listening to the excellent, original work being produced for local audiences across the US. And this week, on what will be the final podcast in the Station Showcase series, itâ€™s my pleasure to share a report from WILL in Urbana, Illinois. WILL News Director Tom Rogers set out to learn about the challenges facing rural entrepreneurs, and about what kind of help they might be able to expect from the next President of the United States. Hereâ€™s more from Tomâ€¦
Your story takes us into the small, quiet town of Homer, Illinois, where local businesses are struggling because so there are so few customers there… any idea what’s caused the town’s population to shrink so precipitously?
Homer hasn’t shrunk any faster than most other small rural towns, but the nature of its employment base has changed significantly. Nearby farmers have bypassed smaller towns in favor of bigger towns with bigger, cheaper stores with more variety. There are fewer and fewer farmers to begin with, so the out-of-town customer base has been going away. And even among residents in the towns, more mobility means more attraction to those bigger retail draws in cities the size of Danville or Champaign. It’s not a new phenomenon at all.
Are there indications that people are moving back into these sorts of small towns from bigger cities and suburbs?
Towns closer to bigger work centers are seeing more people move in, but Homer is a bit too far from those population centers to be considered a “bedroom community.” For some people, the rise of broadband, telecommuting and the home office have tempted them to the cheaper real estate of small towns. But that’s a phenomenon that’s still in the early stages. It’s also hard to tell what rising fuel prices may do to the allure of living far away from it all.
You mention that Obama has promised to provide see money for rural business and McCain has promised to lower business taxes… did you get any sense from the small-town entrepreneurs you met about which presidential candidate they’re favoring at this point?
Almost to a person, my interviewees hadn’t really matched the Presidential campaigns with their fortunes as entrepreneurs. Some have their preferences, but not based solely on their stances on rural or business issues. They also expressed some skepticism about what the candidates — or the federal government in general — can do to help them out in an effective way.
You bring up an interesting point about the problem of connecting entrepreneurs with the funds that are (or will be) available to them to foster their businesses… any thoughts on how that situation might improve?
Everyone I talked to said they would have considered that kind of assistance if they had 1) heard about it in the first place, and 2) been assured it wouldn’t be a bureaucratic hassle. Lack of communication was a key concern, and rural affairs expert Stephan Goetz touched on the problem — there may not be enough resources dedicated to getting the word out about seed money or any other kind of assistance, financial or technical.
Tell us a bit about your radio background, WILL, and the sort of work you do there…
I oversee a three-person staff at WILL, one of the few public radio member stations with an AM frequency. WILL was one of the first university-run radio stations in the country, and it can lay claim to some of the earliest roots of public broadcasting. As a news director in a small shop, I spend about as much time on the air and in the field as I do on managerial duties. I’ve been in public radio for more than ten years after about as long in commercial radio, and I’ve never looked back.
You can hear more stories from PRXâ€™s Rural Issues election series online at The Public Radio Exchange. Thatâ€™s where producers from around the country â€“ and around the world â€“ share their work. Log on, write your own reviews, and have a say in what ends up on the radio at www.prx.org.