RFD-TV Serves Rural America

American Icons
on April 27, 2008
David Mudd

Patrick Gottsch remembers well the day back in the mid-1980s when he set up his first satellite dish for a customer. He monitored the calibrations on a small television on the ground beside him, making small adjustments to lock in the signal. Soon he focused precisely on the satellite somewhere up there in the sky, and booma picture appeared on the set, and a family in rural Nebraska was about to see the world through a much bigger window.

When I installed these dishes, I would follow up to see how people were getting along, Gottsch recalls. And everybody kept saying they loved ESPN, the Weather Channel, HBO. But they wondered why there wasnt any rural programming.

Rural programming was a staple of the television Gottsch recalled from his childhood on a farm outside Omaha, Neb. When I was growing up, there was an early morning ag report on local TV, a noon market report and a farm family of the week, he says. That started going away as TV went more urban, and it just didnt seem right.

Today Gottsch, 54, is in a position to do something about that. As founder and president of RFD-TV, he leads the nations first 24-hour network dedicated to serving the needs and interests of rural and small-town America. Produced and carried via satellite to 31 million viewers in all 50 states from its studios in Nashville, Tenn., RFD-TV is distributed by the DISH Network, DIRECTV and many cable systems across the country, including Comcast, Mediacom and Suddenlink.

Beyond farm shows
Gottsch began installing satellite dishes after his Nebraska farm suffered three consecutive years of drought, but his love of agriculture led him to Dallas in the mid-90s to a job with a video cattle-auction company, which sold livestock at auctions televised to buyers via satellite. There he found a kindred spirit with the auction companys founder, Jim Odle, and the two began brainstorming about television aimed at a nationwide, non-urban audience.

At first, Gottsch and Odle didnt find many nibbles on the line for their idea. Everyone thought it was dumb, Gottsch recalls. They had visions of farmers only watching TV at 5 in the morning. It almost got comical.

So they decided to launch on their own, naming the fledgling network after the U.S. Postal Services Rural Free Delivery service, which made it possible for people living outside cities to receive mail. When RFD-TV hit the air in 2000, the programming included Odles cattle auctions, a farming show from California and some horse competitions. But Gottsch soon heard rural America clamoring for not just farm shows, but also other old-fashioned, wholesome programs that used to air when the number of available channels on any TV set could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

The network grew quickly as smaller cable systems added it to their lineups and big-ticket advertisers came knocking, eager to reach rural America. Today, RFD-TV televises a mix of horse, agricultural, rural-lifestyle and music and entertainment shows, and fashions some of its programming after the now-defunct Nashville Network (TNN) with an extensive selection of classic country-music television programs. The Porter Wagoner Show, The Wilburn Brothers Show, Pop! Goes The Country, and reruns of other popular programs from the last four decades air alongside new shows, such as Ralph Emery Live, which features the broadcasting legend.

Odle, who serves as chairman of RFD-TVs board of directors, no longer is in the cattle-auction business. Instead, he produces one of RFD-TVs programs, Cowboy Church, a weekly inspirational series revolving around rodeo events and hosted by Susie Luchsinger, the sister of country music superstar Reba McEntire.

Following TNNs footsteps
RFD-TVs early viewers mentioned country music and The Nashville Network so many times in letters and e-mails that Gottschwho lives in Elkhorn, Neb. (pop. 6,062)relocated the companys production studios to Nashville in 2004. The move inspired the formerly retired Emery, 74, to return to television, something he seriously doubted hed ever do again after the curtain fell on The Nashville Network in 2000.

I knew RFD had cooked up a market, Emery says. This is the beginning of something thats going to be big. In five or 10 years, it could be monstrous. There is no other network like RFD. I think theyre on to something.

For smaller companies, such as New Age Communications, which serves areas of Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois, adding RFD-TV to the lineup was a smart move.

The music is what really appealed to me, explains Mark Boyer, 47, regional general manager of New Age Communications in central Kentucky. Their shows bring back great memories.

A strong feeling of family and community is evident in RFD-TVs sprawling Nashville operation. Down the hall from Emerys studio is a large board filled with personal notes from some of country musics biggest stars. Huge poster-sized photos of all-star performers line the halls on both sides, reminding visiting singers that they are in a supportive environment. Though it is a bustling studio producing shows that air round the clock, RFD-TVs headquarters feels as down-home as its programs.

That welcoming atmosphere is no doubt what helped lure New York radio personality Don Imus and talk-show hosts Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase to the network. Imus returned to television on RFD-TV in December, while Crook and Chase, who enjoyed a 16-year run on TNN, began taping their new weekly show in January at the Nashville studios formerly used for several TNN shows and the long-defunct Hee Haw. Among the guests for their inaugural show were Garth Brooks, George Jones and the Oak Ridge Boys. The taping felt like a family reunion, with lots of hugs, kisses and pats on the back.

I watch the network quite a bit, Jones says. I watch the horse shows cause I love horses and cattle. Its fantastic. Youve got a lot of farmers and cattle people who would watch those shows, and then youve got a variety of other things, like the Wilburn Brothers. Its great to be able to see the older artists on TV again. It brings back a lot of memories to a lot of people.

After 25 years in the business of entertaining country music fans, Lorianne Crook and Charlie Chase both believe RFD-TV is serving an audience that was forgotten for a time but remains vital and valid.

Viewers eager for wholesomeness
Patrick Gottschs mission is to give a voice to middle-American country fans for entertainment and all kinds of programming, says Crook, 51. We get letters all the time saying network TV in general has gone so much toward sex and violence and blood and guts, that they are hungry for this type of show and others similar to ours. And thats what Patrick wants to do. So Im just thrilled to death that country fans and middle Americans feel like they are being paid attention to!

Ever expanding, RFD-TV now provides a companion channel with high-definition content, and Gottsch hopes to move into satellite radio. He has even bigger plans for the network, which include reaching into urban and overseas markets, where viewers may not be country, but would appreciate the networks content nonetheless.

While everybody else is focused on 18- to 34-year-olds and reality shows, I think theres still room for a channel like ours, Gottsch says. We promote ourselves as television the way it used to be, and still is on RFD-TV. H

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