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Network Aimed at Rural America Speaks for Population That Feels Underserved by the Media

Variety logo Variety 1/19/2017 Cynthia Littleton

For anyone who wanted to get a handle on the mood among voters in rural America leading up to the presidential election, there was an obvious metric to consult: the price of soybeans. And cattle, corn, hogs, milk, and the other staples that drive the agricultural futures markets. Prices in the past few years have been down across the board. That spelled big trouble for the incumbent party in the White House.

Patrick Gottsch, founder and president of rural-lifestyle and agribusiness-focused cable channel RFD-TV, saw the revolt against the political status quo coming more than a year ago. So did Donald Trump’s campaign managers. In the final two weeks before Election Day, Trump’s team spent $150,000 to buy every available advertising spot on Nashville-based RFD-TV. His rival, Hillary Clinton, spent no money on the channel, according to Gottsch.

“You could really see it turning in the last couple of weeks,” Gottsch says. “I couldn’t find a woman in rural America who was going to vote for Secretary Clinton, and I found that odd.”

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JAKE CHESSUM for Variety

Gottsch, who offers that his two adult daughters were Clinton supporters, chalks the loss up to her lack of outreach in rural areas, in addition to general economic frustration, and the belief that the status quo is “rigged” against the little guy. Despite Trump’s 1% status and New York City pedigree, he gained favor because of his image as a maverick billionaire willing to shake up business as usual in Washington.

“He could have run as a Democrat and won,” Gottsch says. “It was the fact that he was so independent, and the fact that he was willing to tell everyone — Democrats and Republicans — to go to hell. Every time some [Republican] refused to endorse him, people went, ‘Oh good.’ ”

“Rural America” is defined by the U.S. Census as cities and towns that have populations of less than 50,000 and are located outside of densely developed “urbanized areas” and “urban clusters” (aka suburbs). By that measure, rural America is home to nearly 60 million people, according to the 2010 Census, or 19% of the U.S. population. It also covers some 72% of the nation’s geographical territory.

The fact that media mavens and urbanites were shocked by Trump’s victory underscores the depth of the cultural divide between big cities and small towns. RFD-TV launched in 2000 as an effort to fill the void in news, entertainment, and information addressing issues of interest to rural viewers, particularly those involved in agriculture. Even as the world of media exploded with digital options, there seemed to be precious little attention paid to people engaged in farming, livestock, mining, and other rural-based industries.

“If it’s not a drought or a disaster or something bad going on, we just don’t get coverage,” Gottsch says.

There is no avoiding the difficult question of whether the cultural gap is exacerbated by racial and ethnic tensions. America’s big cities are becoming increasingly multicultural without a dominant ethnic group, while rural areas remain about 78% white, although the rural Hispanic population jumped 46% from 2000 to 2010, to 6 million. Trump’s campaign rhetoric and policy proposals often have been harshly criticized as fomenting an us-against-them mentality, casting racial, ethnic, and religious minority groups as adversaries to working-class white Americans.

In Gottsch’s view, the key to overcoming prejudice on both sides of the urban-rural divide is communication and a better understanding of one another’s worlds.

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RFD-TV has made a big effort to spotlight innovation and entrepreneurial efforts within its target audience, such as its “FarmHer” documentary series, chronicling women who have taken up the mantle of running family farms. As the indie cabler has grown, RFD-TV has plowed more money into newsgathering, including the recent opening of a bureau in Sao Paolo, Brazil, to cover trends in the country that is second to the U.S. in agricultural exports.

“We are not all a bunch of ‘Hee Haw’ hicks,” he says. “We cannot exist as the U.S. if there is a wall between urban and rural America. We think that our job is to do more to connect city and country again. If we just keep doing ‘Duck Dynasty’ and that kind of thing, we are never going to get to a better understanding of who we are.”

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