Connecting city with country

Marc Armstrong, director of government affairs for Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, makes an appearance on RFD-TV to tout the state’s successful drive for participation in ACRE Co-Op Owners for Political Action.

Electric cooperatives have a long history of providing service where there was an unfilled need. It’s a story that especially resonates with Patrick Gottsch.

In the late 1990s, Gottsch, then a sales executive for a successful livestock auction, looked at cable television lineups around the country and noticed something missing: there was no rural-focused programming anywhere on the dial.

He dedicated himself to filling that void, and by late 2000, had successfully launched Rural Free Delivery Television (RFD-TV) on DISH Network. “At first, when we didn’t have any money, all of our promotion was by word of mouth,” Gottsch says. “People would tell their friends about this dumb old rural network they had seen, and it resonated with them. Most of our audience, since they were rural, were electric co-op members, and the co-ops took notice.”

Soon, RFD-TV had an agreement with DirecTV, which had been founded with investments from the National Rural Telecommunications Council (NRTC) — mostly to provide television satellite programming to rural areas. NRTC had itself been founded by electric co-ops, the NRECA, and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation (CFC). The network soon was being broadcast by nearly all cable providers, and today, RFD-TV is available in more than 52 million homes.

“One of our major goals is to connect city with country,” Gottsch says. “A lot of people who live in urban areas grew up in rural areas. They still vacation in rural areas. But there’s a wall being built between country and city, and so we need to do a better job communicating rural issues with people in the cities.”

The increasing viewership numbers have allowed RFD-TV to provide programming that does just that. What started out as a channel that was known for reruns of rural-focused shows such as Bonanza and The Lone Ranger now provides six hours of live rural-focused news each weekday — including from news bureaus in Chicago and Washington, D.C. — as well as other original or exclusive shows.

“RFD-TV is an obvious and effective place for us to go to get our messages out when we have something we need to say to a wider rural audience beyond our own co-op or even beyond our own state line,” says Patrick Higgins, director of communications at Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives. “Electric cooperative members around the country know that news presented on Market Day Report, for example, will be relevant to them.”

Ron Salyer, CEO of Pioneer Electric Cooperative in Piqua, was interviewed on Market Day to talk about ways electric cooperatives help members save money on their electric bills. Phil Caskey, CEO of Mount Gilead-based Consolidated Cooperative, has talked about efforts of cooperatives nationwide to bring broadband to rural areas. John Metcalf, CEO of Mid-Ohio Energy Cooperative in Kenton, talked about programs that get funding from co-op members’ donations through Operation Round Up.

Officials from Ohio’s Electric Cooperatives, the statewide organization that provides services to the Ohio co-ops, are also in demand: President and CEO Pat O’Loughlin, Vice President Doug Miller, and Government Affairs Director Marc Armstrong all have made multiple appearances on RFD-TV in recent months — including updates from the Legislative Conference in Washington.

“I still read every email and letter that comes in to this company,” Gottsch says. “In fact, we first added news shows because people wrote to say they were disillusioned by both local and national news, which did not cover rural areas unless there was some sort of disaster going on. So we invested heavily in that programming, and now people in rural areas turn to us first. Even people in urban areas are making sure they see what we talk about. We’re chipping away at that wall.”