After 40 years of broadcasting farm reports on radio and television, Mike Austin is literally the voice of agriculture in Northeast Wisconsin.
His distinct timbre and enthusiasm for all things agriculture are heard almost daily in the Green Bay area. When he’s not doing his farm show, the award-winning broadcaster and farm advocate can be found at community and ag events throughout the region and the state.
“To be a good farm broadcaster, you can’t live in the studio,” Austin said. “You have to be out in the field, at the meetings, at the conferences and you have to network.”
Austin’s involvement at industry events and social gatherings is one secret to his success. “I’m always talking to producers,” he said. “When I’m at an event, I’ll ask, ‘How are things going? What challenges do you have? What have you done to personally resolve it?’ I try to keep an open dialog. I think that is the only way you can be successful in ag broadcasting today — to go directly to the farmers.”
Austin is the only broadcaster in Wisconsin to have a regular TV farm segment and one of just a handful with a radio farm show. Viewers in 17 counties catch Austin’s televised Ag Report on Green Bay’s WFRV CBS TV 5, while his radio broadcasts reach listeners in Green Bay, Sheboygan and Wausau.
Austin understood the benefit of interacting with his target audience early in his career. After earning a degree in radio, TV, film and communication arts at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Austin landed his first news reporting job in Iowa. He then took a farm broadcasting position in Oshkosh, later adding a televised farm segment. In both positions, he went directly to his audience for content ideas.
“I first created kind of an ag advisory board to find out what they wanted to hear on the radio, what they wanted discussed,” Austin recalled. “When I started with TV, I did the same thing with the ag advisory council to make sure the direction of the program was what the general public on the ag front wanted to see.”
As agriculture evolved over the years, so did Austin’s shows. “I still try to gear the shows so they are informative for the farmer, but I’m trying to do more stories that people outside of the ag community will watch and learn a little more of what today’s modern agriculture is all about,” he said.
Recent topics for Austin’s TV 5 Ag Report include soil health, cover crops, milk price trends, county fairs and alpaca production. Some shows simply profile farmers doing what they do best “so they [the general public] know the people behind the product, understand who they are, what needs they have, that they have the same concerns — just trying to make a living and raise a family like everyone else.”
Other shows introduce trends and technologies to help farmers succeed. That includes communicating with the public through social media, a trend Austin himself is trying to master. “My industry is in transition, so I’m in transition. I have to learn to tweet and blog and podcast because that’s where people are getting their information,” he said.
No matter what he’s working on, Austin views himself as a storyteller. “That is the best thing I can do, to tell other people’s stories, and if I do it well, I’m always happy about that,” he said.
As the recipient of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation’s 2015 Distinguished Service to Agriculture award, the Associated Press Carol Brewer Award and numerous other accolades, Austin certainly has had his share of recognition over the years.
What is he most proud of? “I’m always pleased that I’ve gotten state and national awards from both the FFA and 4-Hers, because that’s the next generation,” he said. “Not only parents, but the kids feel that I’m providing them information if they do want to get into this field, that I’m passing along information about the benefits of an ag education and the opportunities in the ag industry.”
As retirement nears for this this farm broadcast icon, he recalls those who helped him get started and hopes to mentor future farm broadcasters in the same way. “Yes, there are fewer job opportunities, fewer farmers, but I think it still is a career opportunity. If we are going to continue in this industry, we need some sharp young people."