WIBAUX (KRT) - As Ed Agre videotapes this small Montana town's annual parade, candy skids along the ground - thrown from a bank-sponsored float. Behind, farming tractors follow the local football team roaring from a flatbed truck.
Though he looks like a proud grandfather trying to catch his grandchildren on tape, Agre, 66, is covering the news. He's news director, reporter and desk anchor for KXGN-Ch. 5 in Glendive, the smallest television news market in the nation.
For a 100-mile radius, the only local broadcast news source from the Canadian border to southern Montana is KXGN, aka Ed Agre.
In a time when Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, the courts and the White House are fighting over consolidation in the news media, Agre's work for KXGN represents the kind of local news coverage that critics argue gets lost when a few big corporations own chains of TV and radio stations.
"I'm not for consolidation, period," said Paul Sturlaugson, 51, vice president and general manager of Glendive Broadcasting, which owns KXGN-TV and a pair of AM/FM onsite radio stations. "It's less people making more decisions for all of us, and when corporate America takes over, the bottom line becomes more important than the community. Sports and community events, those are the sort of things that tie a community together."
Agre covers his beat, roughly 400 miles between Scobey and Ekalaka, in his white Lincoln Town Car, chain-smoking Marlboro Lights before he returns each afternoon to tape his evening broadcast.
"The way I feel about radio broadcasting and TV - you're talking to people," Agre says. "It's a personal thing. You're dealing with those people, sitting there in their living room."
Glendive's Cronkite? Agre begins his day at 6 a.m. on KXGN radio, spinning classic country and pop records while offering the first news of the day. At 2:30 p.m., Agre tapes his "Montana East" nightly television news in advance, so he can make happy hour at a local watering hole, the Beer Jug (a valuable source of stories, he says). The time in between is devoted to newsgathering, cigarettes and a lot of driving.
This year, Agre celebrates a 50-year career that began at age 16, when he started out cleaning tapes for KFYR-AM in Bismark, N.D.
"He has quite a flare for that dramatic. When he first started, I think he thought he was Glendive's answer to Walter Cronkite," said resident Pat Moline, 71, sitting in the stands above the game.
Agre's tastes lean toward another broadcast legend.
"My favorite is Paul Harvey. His program is so well-balanced that, to me, it's just beautiful," Agre says. "He's a role model of sorts. I've always admired him, talked to him on the phone a couple times. He walks that fine line between news and entertainment."
Agre's own morning broadcast mixes a down-home sense of humor and such community necessities as reading school menus and weather reports. He keeps a list of some 300 residents' birth dates and sings "Happy Birthday" to them personally. In one segment, Agre reads excerpts of old newspapers. He ends each show with an Ole and Lena joke followed by a polka. If he doesn't, he gets complaints.
"You walk up and down town, and two old ranchers will stop you. They'll let you know what you did wrong," Agre says. "You don't have to worry about TV or radio critics here, we got 50,000 of 'em."
For some, Agre's broadcasts are the soundtracks to their mornings.
"He's a good historian. A lot of the younger kids don't like him because he doesn't play rock," says Jo Ryan, 62, an employee of Reynolds Warehouse. "It'd throw my routine off if I didn't listen to him. If my hair isn't dry by the time he reads the old papers, then I'm late."
An endangered species This is radio the way radio should be done, Agre says.
"A station like this a is probably an endangered species. What I do is probably endangered as well," he says. "There must be some valid reason why they listen to me. At least here, we can individualize."
"All that stuff on that computer - what are you going to do, when that goes down? It's just becoming too push-button. You're losing that edge, that local personalized thing."
Too many programs, he says, are pulled down off "the birds" - Agre's nickname for broadcast satellites.
Agre prefers to get his music, and his news, locally. Although KXGN-TV is a CBS affiliate, it carries some NBC programming at night, including "Friends" and "The West Wing." When Fox carried the National Football League contract, KXGN broadcast Fox.
"People have been writing the obits of these little tiny stations for a long time," says Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcasting at the Poynter Institute. "There is always a hunger for local news, and as long as they can provide a niche, they are always going to have a market. When it gets to the point where they no longer provide a unique service and their content becomes generic, they lose that."
Stephen Marks, a Maryland businessman, owns KXGN, along with a handful of smaller stations, a practice not uncommon in low-population markets, according to the trade magazine Television Week.
The station carries state-centric news from Billings at 10:30 p.m. before Agre's "Montana East" program, so he can keep his news focused on the surrounding 15 counties, including one in North Dakota.
The barrel-chested Agre delivers the news in a professional, no-nonsense manner. Occasionally there's a brief editorial comment, an "Amen to that" chimed in after he agrees with a particular quote, but otherwise he remains a smiling, neutral anchor. Reporting the news in an area where everyone knows your face, your car and your habits requires a certain finesse.
"Most of us in Glendive get a good kick out of him. I've run into him at the Beer Jug," said resident Curt Milne, 70. "Without (the local news) boy, you'd lose that personal touch, and that means a lot to a small community. And pride - you're kind of proud to have the smallest TV station, upgrade it and keep it growing."
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