Working title: A lifestock show runs through it
For the life of me, I can’t escape the livestock shows. This memoir on the installment plan could have been more accurately called “A Livestock Show Runs Through It.”
No matter how far I’ve come in this business, I always end up there. It was my first reporting job. It was the place AP sent me when the Gulf War broke out. And I’ve darkened the door of quite a few livestock feeding operations for public radio.
Didn’t start out this way. Although I knew nothing about the profession, my dream was simple and, of course, reflected the naivety of a small town girl: be a reporter in a big city. I have Mary Tyler Moore to blame for that.
As a kid, I loved The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She was a single girl with a good amount of gosh-darn gumption living in (wow!) Minneapolis. When that show ended and her cranky boss, Lou Grant, played by Ed Asner, went out on his own, I lived for the show’s open.
As I remember it, the camera snaked through the newsroom, picking up snippets of reporters on the phone -- demanding information, shaking down a source, loads of other deadline drama. They were paid to nose into everyone’s business and write about it. In other words, my dream job.
I wanted to be a real reporter, whatever that was, but those jobs were tough to find. Especially for a chubby young woman who didn’t know a soul in the business, came out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a sub-par GPA even after five years in college, and learned more about slinging beer at a football bar than how to be a good writer and watchdog.
In the mid-1980s, I was living in Lincoln, Neb., and didn’t want to sacrifice my social life by moving out to the boondocks of rural America, a place I’d just come from. So I took a job at an advertising agency that offered me $10,000 a year, which this idiot thought was a grand fortune. I was shocked to later learn I could barely live on it.
The ad agency gig was going pretty well until I turned into the Norma Rae of Swandive, Rollover and Hollandaise. When I got a decent bonus during my second year there, I talked about it with some of the other women, hoping to find some kind of sisterhood in our personal poverty. That was fatal feminism. It violated the agreement I had signed when I was hired, promising to never talk about my pay with other employees, and I was shit-canned on a Friday night, making me late for the bus and burning with shame.
After blowing town and taking up residence on my little sister’s couch in Wichita, where I put my bartending degree back to work, I finally landed a job. I returned to my alma mater, back in Lincoln at an office where I had interned: Agricultural Communications.
Come to find out, I had become a tiny part of one of the oldest American democratic educational efforts. With President Abraham Lincoln’s signature on the Morrill Land-grant Act of 1862, he revolutionized education by placing universities on public lands in the states, offering education to the working man as a way to benefit society as a whole. Out of these land-grant universities, like Nebraska’s, came what was called the Extension Service.
This, too, was a visionary program, created to gather the research done at the land-grant schools and extend it out to the common people who first populated the prairie states. This is where my job fit in: I wrote and produced radio and television snippets about the research work in, for instance, agronomy, entomology and plant pathology, and how it could be applied by farmers, ranchers and home economists.
Permed hair piled high, fuchsia lipstick slathered on, I spent my days as an ‘80s weirdo working girl at the Ag Comm building on UNL’s East Campus, writing riveting and insightful radio pieces like “Corn Outlook” and “Subsoil Moisture Conditions to be Favorable by Spring.”
One of my first assignments off-campus was covering the livestock shows at the Nebraska State Fair and Ak-Sar-Ben, the Nebraska-spelled-backwards name for an annual debutante ball and stock show. All day long, for what seemed like endless weeks, broadcast and print reporters attended sheep shows and cattle shows and horse events, looking for 4-H kids with good stories who could hopefully string a few words together to make a sound bite. Our pieces were offered free to stations, and were especially popular way out state, out near Wyoming and Colorado and Kansas, as part of the hourly farm reports on AM radio.
The kids were always the best part of the job, dressed in jeans, work boots and white shirts, all of them unfailingly polite, reserved, respectful. They were serious little athletes who knew that bringing home a championship ribbon was not only an honor, but would help the family livestock business. The shows were remarkably not sexist, with boys and girls equally participating, the teens’ Aqua Velva and Love’s Baby Soft co-mingled with the barnyard smells.
Mostly, the kids were a little wide-eyed but welcoming at seeing me arrive in the ring, sticking a microphone in their face. Here’s what I did a dozen times a day during the shows, running out to the say, the Junior Breeding Heifers Class show:
“Hi, honey, can you tell me about your animal? So how much does he weigh? Oh, OK, she weigh? And the breed? What’s the animal’s name? Oh, you say you named it that because you like cartoons? OK, so this 700-pound cow is named Bugs Bunny?…”
What you don’t ask: how do you feel about your beloved pet, the one you’ve raised and coached and groomed, being taken to slaughter?
After the interview, I’d thank the kid, ask where they’re from, write and produce the piece in the barn we called a press room and send it to the kid’s hometown station. Then I’d brush off my dirty jeans, grab a Coke and a funnel cake for lunch, and find the next go-round. Something different, like, say the Dairy Goat Showmanship event.
I must report that trying to find a good story at the shows was great training and made me awfully adept at making a silk verse out of a sow’s ear. And it was good work, I guess, for the daughter of a stockyards man.