KELO Radio’s Bill Zortman Receives Excellence in Agricultural Journalism Award from National Farmers Union

Posted on: March 11, 2024   |   Category: News Releases

By Lura Roti for South Dakota Farmers Union

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For more than 60 years KELO Radio’s Bill Zortman has been giving rural citizens a voice. And today, March 11, National Farmers Union (NFU) recognized Zortman for his coverage of agriculture issues, presenting him with the Milt Hakel Excellence in Agricultural Journalism Award during the organization’s national convention held in Scottsdale, Arizona.

“This man has helped cover the story of agriculture and he has done a lot for us,” said Doug Sombke, President of South Dakota Farmers Union who presented the award to Zortman.

Reflecting on his long broadcast career, Zortman said his focus at 78 remains the same as it was as a 16-year-old covering sports for his hometown papers, the Onawa Democrat and the Onawa Sentinel.

“I let people have their say. That’s my job. That’s what a broadcaster does – whether it is with a pen, or whether it is with a microphone or a TV camera,” explained Zortman, host of It’s Your AgriBusiness radio show.

Newspaper, radio and television – Zortman has worked in all news mediums throughout his career.

Growing up on a sheep farm in rural Iowa, Zortman got his start as a high school sophomore covering local sports for his hometown paper. He received a $100 broadcast scholarship to attend the University of Iowa. As a broadcast journalism student he began working as a radio show host and play-by-play sports reporter for KWAD radio station.

In 1968 he was called to military service with the 185th Air Guardsman of Sioux City and moved to New Mexico’s Cannon Air Force Base – but not before he was voted by Iowa City listeners as “The Most Popular Voice on the Radio.”

When he wasn’t working as a clerk on base, Zortman worked for the local radio station as a sports reporter. In 1969, release papers in hand, Zortman took a job working for an Amarillo, Texas TV station.

“I got the job because when I was in New Mexico, the station sent me a camera and asked me to shoot local news. I’d shoot stories and find a truck to take the film back to Amarillo which was 105 miles away.”

The TV station hired Zortman to build their coverage network.

“They said, “will you come in and show people in 40 or 50 communities how to film?’”

His drive, ambition and creativity did not go unnoticed. Zortman quickly rose through the ranks to news director. When he was hired, the station had 7 percent of the news audience. Under Zortman’s leadership, within 10 years the station captured 70 percent of the news audience. 

“My philosophy was then, and is now, we cover the news, period,” Zortman said. “I let the facts tell the story. And I always taught my people, and still do, “you gotta tell both sides of the story.” The story can’t be leaning left or leaning right.’”

To help tell the story, Zortman works to ensure those he interviews have the opportunity, “to have their say.”

“You got to be able to make sure people trust you, and that you are not just knocking on one side of the street. I continue to do this today,” Zortman said. “If you do this, people will believe you and trust you.”

Throughout his career, Zortman has produced more than 5,000 TV news shows and nearly 5,000 radio shows.

While producing nearly 10,000 shows, Zortman has amassed several stories of his own that occurred while covering the news. Among his favorites to share is a story that comes from his early days as a high school sports reporter.

The West Monona Spartanettes girls high school basketball team was undefeated and during a game leading up to the championships, their coach came down with the mumps. There was no assistant coach, so he called Zortman and asked if would step in for him.

“I’m a junior in high school and he said, “here’s what I want, I will listen to the game on the radio, and you can be on the bench and talk the girls through what they need to do. You are a play-by-play guy if I ever saw one.’”

With the aid of walkie talkies, Zortman helped coach the basketball team to an 81 to 33 victory. And the team ended up winning the 1964 Class A Women’s Basketball Championship.

Another of his favorite stories comes from his days as a TV reporter. He was covering a murder trial in Oklahoma.

“In those days you could film inside the courtroom. I was shooting this trial and the judged called me before the bench, he said, “I didn’t tell you that you could shoot pictures. Come to my chambers during the break.”

Well, I’m thinking, “this is a two-brother murder trial. He is going to ask me to hand over my film.” So, I took the film that was in the camera and found a truck heading to Amarillo, and gave the driver a few bucks to take my film back to the station,” Zortman said.

Zortman returned to the courtroom. And things went just like he predicted. Only the film the judge requested was safely on its way to Texas.

Zortman has a photo to commemorate the day because ahead of the trial, he was filming a local festival and he ended up being asked by a petting zoo worker if he wanted to have a photo taken of him and his camera riding a donkey. The photo hangs in his office today.

“I’ve had some wild stories happen to me. The crazy thing is, they  are all true,” Zortman said.

Farmers are counting on us

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Bill Zortman with South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke and Wayne Soren, Lake Preston farmer.

Covering agriculture has always been part of Zortman’s career. “Agriculture is our biggest industry. I always tell reporters, ‘We have farmers out there counting on us to tell their story.’”

For many years, Zortman was a correspondent for Orin Samuelson’s U.S. Farm Report.

Zortman and his wife, Carolyn moved 18 times for Zortman’s career. Their last move was to the Sioux Falls area in 2000.

Zortman moved to South Dakota after spending years working with KSFY TV, which was one of more than 40 TV stations he helped oversee as an original shareholder of a nation-wide television network.

When the network was bought out, Zortman took a break from journalism and served as the Executive Director for the Red Cross of South Dakota and Nebraska. He helped guide the non-profit though the tragic 2001 events of 9-11.

In 2007, Zortman returned to journalism, when he joined the KELO Radio team. As the host of It’s Your AgriBusiness Zortman got to know South Dakota Farmers Union. He helped them launch a monthly radio show in 2014. Over the years he has shared the stories of many South Dakota’s farm and ranch families. Zortman has traveled with the organization, broadcasting live from several State Conventions, D.C. Fly-Ins and National Conventions.

“Agriculture is South Dakota’s biggest industry and I enjoy the people and sharing their stories. And I always make sure to feature the next generation,” Zortman said. “I always ask those I’m interviewing, “what will you say about your decision to the next generation?” It is our job to pass the torch to the next generation. So, I want people to think about how the decisions they make today will impact the next generation.’” 

To learn more about Bill Zortman, visit KELO.com.