Higher, higher: Honoring the late Evan Slack
Farm broadcasting legend Evan Slack, who spent his career on the airwaves in Colorado and the Mountain West, passed away on Sept. 19, 2020, at age 86.
Born in the Missouri Ozarks, Slack milked cows and listened to KWTO, dreaming of one day being a broadcaster himself. He began recording farm and grain reports while attending college in 1952 before serving his country as a U.S. Marine. He then returned to the University of Missouri, where he gave farm reports on air, “mixing and mingling” some music in as well. After coming to Colorado for a radio job that didn’t pan out, he worked for the Monfort family’s feedyard, eventually joining a radio station in Fort Collins. KHOW in Denver hired him — paying $2 per hour, markedly more than he had made on air previously — and for several years he broadcast from the Denver Union Stockyards and whichever meeting he had traveled to attend. During his career, he broadcast from 45 states, four Canadian provinces, and Australia.
It was there, toting a heavy bag of microphones and batteries, that he met so many of the people involved in the West’s agriculture industry. KLZ was his next stop and when it was sold, he moved to the Intermountain Radio Network. In 1976, he joined 50,000-watt KOA where he gave a 20-minute report at noon. The departure from KOA prompted him to begin the Evan Slack Radio Network, where he spent the next 26 years, now part of Nemetz Communications.
Known for taking to the air in his Mooney airplanes, Slack earned his pilot’s license in 1967 and often flew to meetings across the country. His tagline, “On the air, and in the air” was fitting. Gene Millard, also a retired farm broadcaster from Missouri, spent quite a bit of time with Slack, especially in 1987 when Slack was the president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasters.
Tom Brand, executive director of the NAFB, said Slack was a member of the class of 1956, joining the association the same year as Orion Samuelson and Texas farm broadcaster Roddy Peeples. Brand, a farm broadcaster prior to his current post, said the annual meeting and past president’s banquet was made richer by the stories the trio shared.
Brand said the bond Slack, who was inducted into the NAFB Hall of Fame in 2009, shared with his listeners went beyond his voice on the radio.
“He was present in their lives and reported on the news that affected each of his listeners,” he said. “He was quick to introduce himself to new members, enjoyed sharing stories about his past, and was quick to adapt to the newest technology available in broadcast.”
It was when Millard, best known as the host of Swap Shop on ag radio stations on Saturday mornings, joined the NAFB in 1964 that he met Slack. Millard said he was always impressed with how extraordinarily well-known Slack was, in a myriad of circles. In the 80s, Millard said he took to the co-pilot seat of the Mooney airplane Slack was so fond of to make sales calls and attend various meetings.
Millard said their first flight together was to Billings, Mont., in 1978 or so and they flew many times after that, sometimes with a tail wind and oftentimes in questionable weather conditions. The two would make a game of naming every radio station’s call letters or naming all of the stations east of the Mississippi River that begin with K.
Millard remembers walking through the Yards at the National Western Stock Show, which he said was a several hour endeavor, filled with a slew of people anxious to visit with Slack. Millard said he would always greet people with a smile and often a unique saying like, “Shoot low, Sheriff. They’re riding Shetlands,” or a goodbye of “Tally ho and away we go!”
Orion Samuelson has been the farm director at WGN Radio Chicago since 1960, marking his 60th year on air on Sept. 24, 2020. Samuelson, who announced that he will retire from his post at the end of the year, said their paths were similar right down to their love of single engine airplanes.
“I had an airplane, but I don’t have a license, I had a pilot fly it for me,” Samuelson said. “He flew (his) but the big difference is that I never landed in a cow pasture, but he did very often.”
Samuelson attributes his own success, and that of Slack, to their ability to listen.
“We made our living talking, but I think we were good listeners,” he said. “Being a good listener was something Evan did, and I tried to do.”
“Interviewing presidents and Communist dictators was great, but the best interviews I did were with farmers and ranchers,” he said. “I grew up on a diary farm in Wisconsin and that taught us to listen to our neighbors and our parents. I think Evan did that very well and I tried to. I guess the fact that I lasted 60 years on the air at one station says yeah, I was a pretty good listener.”
Samuelson said it was a pleasure to be Slack’s friend, to work with him, to learn from him and said he hopes he perhaps taught Slack something as well.
“I always appreciated his outgoing personality and the fact that we both made good use of a little single engine airplane,” he said. “It was always fun to get together with Evan and talk about not just farm broadcasting but also we would talk about the fun that flying an airplane was. He was a good guy.”
Colorado ag broadcaster Brian Allmer misses the days when Slack’s noon ag report was broadcast on the 50,000-watt KOA. The FCC eventually lifted the requirement that agriculture news be broadcast on stations of a certain size some 30 years ago, prompting Slack to venture out on his own.
“Mr. Slack was a trailblazer,” Allmer said. The world of ag communications has a huge void to fill.”
Allmer can typically be found in the NWSS’s Stadium Arena announcing the livestock shows. It is during these shows, he said Slack would stop by the booth for a visit. Allmer said he misses Slack’s reports and will deeply miss those visits.
KOA was also where Steffan Tubbs found his start on Denver radio, but it was during his time studying at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that Tubbs first heard Evan Slack’s name and was the beneficiary of his career and generosity.
“There are two things Cal Poly San Luis Obispo is really good at — agriculture and engineering,” Tubbs said. “While I was there, I did quite a bit of ag reporting and was the recipient of a scholarship in Evan Slack’s name. I remember receiving the letter in the mail from Slack congratulating me for earning it.”
Lorrie Boyer began her career at KLMR in Lamar and is currently the farm director at KSIR in Fort Morgan. She met Slack when he flew his plane to Lamar to speak at the Natural Resources Conservation Service annual meeting. At the time, the NAFB required potential members to submit a letter of recommendation from a current member and Slack was the one to write the letter. Since then, Boyer served as the second president of the association from Colorado after Slack.
“He has always been a huge support for me and so encouraging,” she said. “He taught me a lot about being personable in my ag news delivery so as to really connect with the listener and make them feel like they are the only one I am talking to when I am giving a newscast.”
Daniel Green, known both for his broadcast work with the American Angus Association and his career as the editor of the Record Stockman, remembers Evan Slack recording his broadcasts in the 1950s from the Livestock Exchange Building in what was once the Denver Union Stockyards Company. Green remembers Slack’s friendship with his father, Harry Green, Jr., and calls Slack an icon in the farm broadcasting business.
“If you were around in any role, whether it was for the newspaper like I was, he was always there and was well known,” Green said. “Particularly when I was younger and didn’t know my way around very well, you would watch Evan and he knew everyone who was there at the meeting so whoever he was talking to is who you needed to go talk to. Evan knew who they all were.”
Bill Markham, a farmer from Berthoud, Colo., said he remembers well listening to Slack’s noon farm report on the radio but enjoyed seeing him at Denver when they marketed their cattle. It was really a thrill, Markham said, when Slack included their cattle in his report.
“He would say, ‘Good afternoon, Evan Slack, and the cattle market today is higher, higher, higher,’” he said. “Everyone knew Evan as soon as they heard his voice.”
Korrey, a world champion auctioneer from Iliff, Colo., remembers that moment as well, but he also remembers the first lesson he learned from Slack. Korrey met Slack when he and his family were marketing cattle at the DUSC and saw him through the years at the NWSS Commercial Female Sale and Junior Livestock Sale. As a young man at sales, Korrey noticed that Slack remembered people’s names, introduced them to others, and gave them credit and recognition whenever it was deserved.
“He played a big part in the livestock business,” Korrey said. “I remember growing up listening to him on the radio and then at Denver at the Exchange when we sold cattle. It was a complete circle when I was fortunate to sell at the National Western and could introduce and recognize him. It was an honor to know him.”
Wayne Kruse, who co-owned Centennial Livestock Auction in Fort Collins said Slack attended the NWSS Sale at CLA annually. Kruse said Slack gave CLA’s auction report for years and helped the Kruse and Van Berg families as they began building their respective markets. Kruse, who called bids at Sterling Livestock from 1960 to 1980 before purchasing CLA, met Slack there and they spoke weekly for decades.
It was undoubtably some of those reports that rancher Vince Poppe heard on the radio. In the 1970s, Poppe was a young cowboy on a cow calf operation in what was then remote high country at about 9,000 feet at the upper end of the Gunnison Valley. It was Slack, he said, who taught him about the industry beyond his valley. Years later, once Poppe began AI’ing females and selling cattle at the NWSS, he met and got to know Slack.
“I would call Evan my eyes and ears on the beef industry when I was a young guy,” Poppe said. “I listened to him a lot and got to know him personally once we started selling cattle at Denver and having our own bull sale and we advertised with Evan. He was a friend and an icon of the industry. He had his finger on the pulse of a lot of things.”
Advertising with Slack, he said, was an easy decision but having him as a sounding board was equally valuable.
“He always appreciated our cattle and he let me know that and encouraged me,” he said. “He supported the industry as well as he could as one person. I’ll miss him. I always looked forward to receiving a phone call before bull sale season and I’ll miss getting that phone call.”
Slack’s stories and willingness to mentor others in the ag industry resonated also with Terry Fankhauser, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association. Slack attended 50 consecutive CCA conventions and was honored by the group for his contributions to agriculture and the cattle industry.
“I always found value in his stories,” Fankhauser said. “He used to say what we’re doing now is a reflection of what we’ll do in the future. In our industry, it is important to pay attention to those who came before you if you expect people to follow you when you lead.”
Twenty-five years ago, Russell Nemetz was beginning his farm broadcast career and said he was always impressed with Slack’s knowledge and his commitment to only say things about people he would say on the air. He had offered to help Slack with his reports if he ever found himself in a jam. Years later in 2016, Nemetz was in Montana working for Northern Ag Network and received a call from Slack who was attending the Superior sale in Steamboat Springs. Slack had suffered a stroke and took Nemetz up on his earlier offer to help, and that was the beginning of Nemetz’s tenure working for and with Slack. He quietly purchased the Evan Slack Radio Network earlier in 2020.
“He was one of the pioneers of farm broadcasting,” Nemetz said. “The news has reached a good chunk of America and I haven’t been able to read all of the comments, but the ones I have read warm my heart. Evan meant a lot to a lot of people.”
Services for Evan Slack have not yet been announced. Cards may be sent to his longtime significant other Carolyn Browne, 41329 North Laurel Valley Court, Anthem, Arizona, 85086. ❖
— Gabel is the assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 768-0024.
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