The Road Dog Trucking channel has a radio audience as captive as any. Its listeners are professional drivers stuck behind the wheel hauling loads at all hours.
For an hour each weeknight, between “Road Dog Live” and a zany show called “Freewheelin’,” a small team of award-winning journalists and sound engineers serves up truck driving news from a studio at the Grain Valley exit off Interstate 70.
“Land Line Now” is stylish, in-depth reporting that aims to be the “60 Minutes” of trucking.
Just how much trucking news is out there to report? Apparently enough, as the program is entering its 10th year.
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Still, almost everyone hired at “Land Line Now” asks: A news hour about truck driving? In depth? Night after night?
James Fetzer was asking himself those things in 2005 after graduating from college in Iowa, where he worked with National Public Radio.
“Land Line Now” was preparing to launch from the Grain Valley headquarters of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in eastern Jackson County. The trade group was dealing with Sirius Satellite Radio for a slot on its trucking channel.
“The only thing I knew about trucking was the Snowman character Jerry Reed played in ‘Smokey and the Bandit,’” Fetzer said. That, he said, and Optimus Prime of the Transformer line of toys.
Of course, he hadn’t laid eyes on the hundreds of pages of fine print known as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations.
He and others at “Land Line Now” recognize that just those rules — always changing, never clear enough and enforced differently from place to place — can fill the 9 a.m. planning meetings with more trucking news than anyone, including truckers, would wish to digest.
“It used to be you’d have five or six new trucking regulations in the pipeline, and that meant some heavy research,” said writer and host Mark H. Reddig.
“A few years back we started looking at 60-plus regulations in the pipeline. A 10-year supply of new rules all at once. That’s insane.”
The story ideas were flying at a recent morning news meeting.
“Diesel went down another 3 cents overnight,” relayed news anchor Reed Black, formerly a TV reporter. “The plunge continues.”
Tennessee is proposing new weight fees. A Missouri lawmaker wants to let tractor-trailers use left lanes at will. A long-hauler is busted in California for stealing designer sunglasses and selling them online.
President Barack Obama was about to sign an omnibus spending bill that included — that’s right, good buddy — adjusted rules and further study of trucker workweeks and rest times.
Eyes around the room rolled when an OOIDA staffer mentioned an economist for the American Trucking Associations saying driver pay and benefits are better than ever.
“We spend a lot of time knocking down myths,” Reddig said.
For the record, Reddig attributed a nationwide truck driver shortage partly to incomes going down, not up. He also said widely circulated estimates of the frequency of wrecks due to trucker fatigue are bogus.
It was “Land Line Now” that first revealed what it considered an arbitrary checklist used by Minnesota authorities to ascertain if a trucker is too tired to drive: Empty soda cans in the cab? Exterior dirty? Driver “too cooperative”?
The prize-winning investigative report prompted an OOIDA lawsuit and federal ruling that forced Minnesota to chuck the checklist.
Advocacy journalism, no doubt. “Land Line Now” and OOIDA’s Land Line Magazine serve independent drivers who own their trucks. The reporting is sometimes at odds with the views of trucking companies represented by the American Trucking Associations, said ATA spokesman Sean McNally.
“Our marching orders are not always the same,” McNally said. “But the drivers do listen in. Many of these programs by and large do a good job presenting things important to truckers.”
Motor oil, for example, is important.
An expert named Jerry Sims periodically is invited to the program for a long discussion of oil filtration and the chemical properties of lubricants.
“There’s a whole science to lubricants” that would compel most radio listeners to flip channels, host Reddig said. “For truckers, it’s their bread and butter.”
Solid sound quality is another challenge specific to radio for truckers, said producer Barry Spillman, who has been with the show since its start.
Prior credits included engineering sound sessions with music artists Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Violent Femmes. But Spillman did know this much about big rigs when moving into the OOIDA digs: “The inside of a cab was really noisy.”
So direct recordings of guests are preferred to fuzzy phone interviews.
That extra push, perhaps, has helped put dozens of plaques on the walls around the studio. Honors from the Truck Writers of North America, regional press clubs and the International Automotive Media Awards hang next to album covers for trucking music.
The radio crew drew kudos in 2009 for helping bring home for Christmas hundreds of stranded drivers employed by Oklahoma-based Arrow Trucking.
Now that was a huge story. Arrow abruptly shut down during the holiday season, its finances a mess and drivers without fuel cards or the means to get home to families. The show spread word of where drivers in need of a lift were located.
“You’ll see truckers coming together the way a community does after a house burns down,” Reddig said.
At the recent editorial meeting, an OOIDA staffer suggested a story on the “delicious indictment” just leveled at the Arrow CEO accused of bilking the company.
Reported that last week. Next?