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If you want to hear corporate-produced programs that sound identical no matter where you live in the United States, just about any spot on the radio dial will do.
But if you want to know what’s going on in Maquoketa, Iowa, only one station has what listeners need.
KMAQ AM/FM is one of Iowa’s few locally owned and operated radio stations, with no out-of-market consultants. Maquoketa, population roughly 6,000, is the county seat of rural Jackson County, in far eastern Iowa. The station is owned by the Maquoketa Broadcasting Corporation, mostly in the person of Dennis Voy. He also operates one of the few drive-in theaters remaining today, but that’s another story.
KMAQ is on the air from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, with some of its programs streaming online. Offerings include country music, local high school news, a polka program, bingo, a call-in auction show, live reading of obituaries, and much more. Not only is the programming distinctively live and local, so is the on-air staff.
In fall 1996, Voy and his wife, Nancy, looked at their program offerings and noticed something missing. They already had a talk show with long-time on-air personality Leighton Hepker. But they decided they wanted a talk show with a woman’s perspective.
They thought right away of Sheri Melvold. An Arizona native, she’d worked for newspapers such as the Phoenix Gazette and the Arizona Republic. Her then husband, Doug Melvold, was a journalist, too, and a Maquoketa native. When he returned to take over the family-run Maquoketa Sentinel Press, she accompanied him and worked for the paper. Even after the couple divorced, she continued working there for several more years. She also contributed to other area newspapers on occasion and became well known in the community. Her local knowledge and journalism chops meant she was an obvious choice to take on a live interview and call-in show, even though she had never worked in radio before.
They Voys didn’t waste time on focus groups or market research. The first episode of “Just Talk” aired in December 1996. Melvold says she already knew whom she wanted to interview because she’d been reporting on the community for some time. The biggest thing was choosing the theme song. “That was really important,” she recalls. She wanted something that would poke a bit at any politicians who might come on the air. “It needed to make them squirm a little bit but be funny.” That’s how she settled on “Danger Zone” from the movie Top Gun.
“Just Talk” started out as a two-hour show. Typically, there were three successive guest interviews of 30 minutes each. The last 30 minutes were open for listeners to call in. That formula lasted only a few months.
“That was really a lot to do,” Melvold says. “We’re not big enough for that much demand on the call-in portion.” The format was soon tweaked to one hour, Monday through Thursday, leaving Friday open as a call-in program.
Melvold remembers her first day on air, when she sat down for her big interview with Santa Claus. Dennis Voy and Melvold’s husband, Tommy Messerli, who is the station engineer, watched her through the studio window for a few minutes to see how things were going. “Then they looked at each other and went across the street for coffee,” apparently assuming the new radio journalist needed no further assistance. She didn’t. Before long, Voy added KMAQ news director to Melvold’s list of job titles.
In a county of about 19,000 people, it might seem Melvold would have run out of program topics by now. She puts time into finding interesting guests by reading a lot of local newspapers. She doesn’t do shows about for-profit businesses. But people come on to talk about their fundraisers, their art shows, their club meetings, their church suppers. County supervisors come to explain bond issues. Conservation officials come to talk about the state and county parks, and the plan to develop a new campground. The school superintendent sits down with her once a month to talk about district news. Lining up guests isn’t hard, but getting them to come when she has an opening can be tricky. She doesn’t pre-record programs. “A live show is more comfortable and I don’t want people to stop and re-do something they said.”
She recalls a time she was interviewing the fire chief, who was also part of the local waste management authority. He was discussing recycling when his pager went off. “He looked at me like he wasn’t sure if he could just get up and walk out in the middle of a live interview.” She told him he needed to get up and go. “He went roaring out and left me with 10 minutes of nothing. I just had to repeat what we’d talked about. Fortunately, the next guest was there a little early.”
Melvold knows her show isn’t a hard-hitting political news program. She tries not to press too much. But she does run the ship and reminds certain guests that it isn’t her job to present only the positive side of community stories. She sees her role as providing information and not debating with guests. She doesn’t editorialize. She might imply her position simply with the questions she asks, such as why a person thinks the public wasn’t informed about an issue when in fact, several public meetings had been convened.
“I have newspaper in my soul,” Melvold says. “But radio keeps me going.”
One exception to her stance against editorializing made her a foot note in a community tragedy. “We had city manager who was not very good, was making mistakes, and was costing us money,” Melvold recalls. The man had been city manager from 1994 to 1997. He was a guest on the program toward the end of his tenure, and Melvold felt the station should follow up with an editorial. She delivered the consensus opinion on air, that the city council should replace the city manager. Not long after, that is what the council decided to do.
Several years later, that former city manager attended a Jackson County Board of Supervisors meeting because of a dispute over his property taxes. Melvold was there too, covering the meeting as KMAQ news director. “He sat down behind me, but I couldn’t stay for the whole meeting because I had to stop by the police station to get information for another story,” she recalls.
Because the county courthouse didn’t have a metal detector, the man was able to bring a gun to this meeting, hidden in his briefcase. He attempted to shoot one individual and was overpowered. He died in the incident, which was ruled a suicide.
Melvold herself had missed the shooting but was at the police station when the 911 call came in. Before she knew it, she says, she was headed back into the scene, into danger. Why? “Because that’s what journalists do,” she explains.
Melvold was back in the courthouse to see the aftermath and be interviewed by a local television station, which taught her she’d “much rather interview than be interviewed.” As a result of this incident, the courthouse has changed its security measures.
Melvold thinks of “Just Talk” as a conversation across the kitchen table, with people telling stories about what matters to them. “What I might think is important might not be what they think, and we help them get their voice heard.” She strives to make guests feel relaxed inside the confines of that glass fishbowl booth—”it would be considered bad radio if I didn’t.”
Melvold retired as “Just Talk” host and news director in 2015. After a hiatus, she returned to the talk show in 2017. She was able to interview President Bill Clinton when he was campaigning in Iowa for Hillary, though he didn’t come to the station. She’s hosted candidates for local elections but does not put opposing candidates live on the air together to debate. She’s filled in as host for the call-in show when needed but says that’s not her favorite thing. She is afraid of what she might let slip after too many versions of a guest saying: “I’m opposed because my taxes will go up,” and herself responding: “No, actually, I was at the meeting, so I know they won’t go up.”
KMAQ has a strong rural listenership but its audience is aging. There is competition for listener attention and other sources for news and entertainment. But, she explains, people can’t turn to those sources to find out if school has been cancelled that day, or where the Easter egg hunt will be held. When the local arts center needs immediate volunteers, or if there is breaking news, KMAQ can respond rapidly on the air. These are the localisms many rural media organization can point to that make them a complement to larger news outlets. Yet KMAQ, with its longtime investment in what the people of Maquoketa think is important, has set itself a special course. That has paid off with loyalty from both listeners and advertisers.
As spring turns to summer, KMAQ listeners can catch St. Louis Cardinals baseball games on the air and maybe advertise some stuff from the back of their garages on the auction show. Then fall will return and high school kids will come on the air to talk about their activities and accomplishments. Then winter arrives and the sounds of KMAQ, headquartered in downtown Maquoketa, will be piped out across the business district through outdoor speakers, to get shoppers in the holiday spirit. Sheri Melvold will keep talking to guests for the foreseeable future. “I have newspaper in my soul,” she says. “But radio keeps me going.”
Julianne Couch writes true stories and invents others from her home in Bellevue, Iowa. This story is one of the true ones.