It’s January in South Dakota, which means its time for The Sioux Empire Farm Show, where for decades the makers and sellers of all things Ag put winter on the back burner and get together indoors to put on a show for those who farm and ranch for a living. For an afternoon you can leave winter and enter a world of machinery makers, seed dealers, tire merchants, makers of the latest hardware and software. Even if you’re not involved in production agriculture it’s a potent environment for learning.
The Farm Show has special meaning for me. It was 1984. The unemployment rate was somewhere between 8 and 10%. I had graduated college with honors the previous summer with no idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be. Both of my brothers had coincidently found their way back to South Dakota that January, so I said “what the heck” and headed there myself with no job and no clue of where to start.
When I was 17 I worked weekends at a tiny radio station in Wabasha, MN. I hadn’t given radio another thought for several years, but while in college a string of circumstances found me as both a full-time student and a full-time commercial DJ. The radio job was open only because guy named Reid Holsen had left it. Reid ended up a few years later in Sioux Falls as Program Director at KIOV-FM 104.7. Reid knew a little bit about me from those Mankato days, and for whatever reason he saw something in me and gave me a shot on weekends. However, before I stepped foot in the studio I learned sister station KXRB had another opening of sorts at the Sioux Empire Farm Show. The gig was five days of wandering the Farm Show in…a gorilla suit. I don’t remember why the station had a gorilla suit, or how the gorilla fit into the promotional strategy of a pair of country radio stations, but there it was. It probably wasn’t much of a suit when it was new, and in January 1984 it was anything but new. The “hair” was matted, the rubber mask smelled something awful and the whole getup was HOT. My job was to walk around the show floor with my best primate amble, mess with people, hand out yardsticks with the station logos, and do it all without making a sound. For five straight days.
Here I was, a college grad with degrees in labor relations and economics, two successful years of full-time experience as an on-air radio personality on a #1 FM hit music station…in a gorilla suit for 5 days. I sweated off 5-10 pounds a day. I smelled. People verbally abused me. Someone actually taped a “Kick me” sign on my back. I was paid around $3 an hour. And I worked my butt off trying to be the best Farm Show gorilla I could be. I could have said no, been insulted, flat-out refused or quit… but I didn’t. I had agreed to do the gig for five days, and I did it in as professional manner as I could muster. If I was going to be a Farm Show gorilla, I was going to be the greatest Farm Show gorilla in costumed primate history.
The next week I started doing weekends on-air. In a few months I was hired full time, eventually took over the station’s morning show, and before leaving helped take that station to #1 in the market. At 25 I turned myself into a successful talk show host and program director in Rochester, MN, then moved to the Twin Cities and programmed one of the most celebrated talk radio stations in the US. I left the glitz and money behind to return to South Dakota and a job in public service. I loved the work, and I know I made a lasting impact, but learned too late that challenging the status quo is not the path to longevity in public employment. At age 55 I found myself looking to start over.
Despite laws to the contrary, many people facing the job market in their 50’s or 60’s can tell you the soul-crushing frustration of being covertly considered too old, too expensive, over-qualified, under-qualified, etc. When I was doing the hiring I cared much less about age in favor of finding out whether or not a candidate had a little “Farm Show Gorilla” in them. If they did, it told me they’ll do whatever needed to be done, and do it with creativity and good cheer. Now I’m the one looking for an opportunity. If you have bananas that need peeling, I know my “Farm Show Gorilla” is still alive and kicking.