Letter from Langdon: One Rural Community’s Media Diet

The telephone party line has given way to the Internet, but traditional media like weekly newspapers and AM radio stations still flourish in this part of Missouri. Richard Oswald describes the media landscape of his part of Yonder.

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They called it a line ring.

It was the closest thing to 911 we had.

Our community was one of the last to go dial. The way country phones worked was they were connected by a couple of 9 gauge galvanized steel wires hung 12 feet in the air on poles 100 feet apart set at the edge of public road right of way. Phone wires went all the way back to the telephone office in town where “Central”–that’s what we called the nice lady serving as the operator– could connect caller to caller via a switchboard.

If I wanted to call Grandma for instance, all I had to do was give a quick short turn of the ringer crank on our home phone to get Central’s attention. That’s when she came on the line with a one word question, “number?” That was my cue to say “303, please.” That was grandmother’s phone number.

It was good to always say please.

While one short ring meant business as usual, one long unending ring from someone along the line meant something else. It was our equivalent of 911. House fires, heart attacks, lost kids, levee breaks–all were precursors of one long ring. If the emergency seemed large enough, Central would repeat it throughout the entire system with several short staccato rings, waiting while everyone picked up, and then making the announcement.

Here around Langdon it can take a while, but things have changed.

We can’t do line rings anymore; there’s no crank on our phones. But the local emergency management in town, and the school, use text messaging to issue warnings or reminders of what’s going on. And grain elevators use them to give farmers the daily bids. One drawback is that users must sign up for texts. No registration, no text.

What you don’t know won’t hurt you?

And thanks to our proximity to a nuclear power station, we have an early warning system of sirens around the community. Sirens have never blown for a nuclear emergency, but they’ve been used plenty of times for severe weather and tornado warnings, and at least twice in the last 18 years for a failed Missouri River levee.

It’s not this way all across Missouri, many communities still aren’t connected. But the same telephone co-op that brought party lines to Langdon now joins the community through more than wires. Thanks to them, and cellular providers, virtually everyone here who wants it has access to some form of Internet service from 4G to DSL, fiber, or wireless broadband. Along that line all the schools in the county have websites listing activities, events, and school lunch menus .

And we have Facebook!

A funeral notice at a filling station in Rock Port.
A funeral notice at a filling station in Rock Port, Missouri, a town of about 1,300 residents located a few miles from Langdon.

Rock Port Friends is a Facebook page started by graduates from our local school who want to stay in touch. There are lots of people from the community who use FB to share life events. Farm organizations like the one I’m in, Missouri Farmers Union, have their own pages, too. So rural people use Facebook pretty much the same way the rest of the world does.

Some more than others–

Radio is still an important way to keep up with regional and local news. Here outside of Langdon we rely on AM stations like KMA regional radio in Shenandoah, Iowa, for daily obituaries of those who have left town for good. And KFEQ radio in St Joseph, Missouri, also brings news and weather (if you don’t mind Rush Limbaugh) to the community. And in Maryville, Missouri, at KTRX/KNCV we have a FM public radio station offering NPR programming along with local news and sports coverage for northwest Missouri and southwest Iowa.

Perhaps the most antiquated (or peculiar, to our city cousins) is the funeral notice card put out by local mortuaries. It’s still customary here for undertakers to leave death notices with the time and location of services for area deceased. Those notices may have died off in the city, but here, other than listening to KMA, it’s the best way we have to keep track of declining numbers.

Despite reports of its imminent demise, a prominent dinosaur of community still lives in rural America: the small-town weekly newspaper.

There are three in my county. I’m not sure what accounts for their vigorous state. Most small newspaper publishers bemoan depopulation and declining advertising business. But legal notices, those dry humdrum requirements placed on local government by state overseers who require public transparency, pay some of the bills, along with ads for increasingly uncommon small town businesses. Most successful communities still have a grocer, the drug store, bank, and several insurance agencies.

But advertisers aren’t all local.

A lot of them, businesses from neighboring towns or places even farther away, look to supplement their own shrinking business networks with our population. The upshot is has sustained local coverage of school board elections, presidential primaries, and good things happening in our communities and schools.

That, for the most part, remains unchanged from when 1950’s vintage line rings were common.

Occasionally, though, when technology fails us, when the newspapers aren’t due to be out for a few more days and the Internet’s down, thanks to coffee shops and church services, now and then, a few of us even talk to each other.

Compared to the way Washington works these days, that’s pretty revolutionary.

Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter from Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.



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