We went looking for the loneliest radio station in Iowa. KSOI-FM ended up being anything but. Run by pilots, doctors, engineers and artists in the rural town of Osceola, it’s filled with people who are so passionate about their own community, they started a radio station. The catch? It’s in Joe Hynek’s spare room.
Hynek didn’t set out to be a radio man. When Osceola’s local radio station and newspaper were bought and transferred to Des Moines, he realized the people of their small community had no way to receive local news. A family man and engineer, Hynek began the journey back in 2007 to create south-central Iowa’s only locally programmed, non-commercial, community-based radio station. He dreamed it would cover 2,500 square miles, broadcasting music, culture and community affairs with 24/7 programming. In October of 2007, he applied for a construction permit to build the 91.1-FM radio tower. After a two-year wait, it was finally approved.
Over a decade later, the station is the voice of the community.
Hynek’s family has completely opened their home to the station. Just off of the Hyneks’ dining room lies the KSOI headquarters, complete with two desks, a couple of microphones, a computer and a sound board. Before the pandemic, DJs would come into the station after work to record segments. One late night, one of them ended up sleeping on Hynek’s couch.
“That’s when my wife realized she lived in a radio station,” Hynek joked.
Today, the station is fully automated, covering nearly 10 miles of Clarke County. The team pre-selects the music and what segments will air for that day. Segments range from the weather to short interviews and are done by several regular hosts. Each segment has a special touch – KSOI receives recordings from across the community, reading off “KSOI” with pride.
As for music, anything from Elton John’s “Yellow Brick Road” to “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” by Shania Twain can be heard on the air. KSOI is known for its wide range of music, and every once in a while, Hynek adds a local musician to the mix.
“My theory was if I just play a wide variety of good music, I’ll be able to slip in some not-so-known musicians here and there,” Hynek said. These “not-so-known musicians” include an artist who, at 15 years old, raised money for a recording session by mowing neighborhood lawns.
The radio station has become something of a family business. Hynek’s mother and father keep the books while his wife helps host board meetings. Hynek’s sister, who’s a physician at Osceola’s local hospital, has a segment called “Live Well” where she interviews doctors to cover a wide variety of health concerns. His grandmother used to read the weather report. Even his five-year-old son reads the grain report daily.
“It’s teaching him how to read,” Hynek said proudly.
But despite appearances, the Hyneks are just one part of KSOI.
Mary Ellen and Old Doc Kimball
Enter husband and wife duo Jim and Mary Ellen Kimball. They were the first people to join Hynek in this great journey into the world of radio and were big proponents of creating a local station for the community.
Jim is a physician and Vietnam veteran and Mary Ellen is an advocate for the arts – oh, and they both happen to be pilots. The couple has lived in Osceola since the 1960s after moving from Springfield, Missouri, and was excited at the prospect of the new station.
“We’ve lived in this community. We’ve helped build it,” Mary Ellen said. “It just seemed natural. It seemed fun.”
The duo were instrumental in getting the station funded, with Mary Ellen helping Hynek lead the charge.
“Joe and I walked around the area and told people,” Mary Ellen said. “We gave them an idea of what it could be and what we needed, like land for a tower. We even thought about building a station office before Joe bought his house.”
Mary Ellen knew what she was getting into. She worked as a reporter for 96.9-FM The Jock for several years, holding a weekly 30-minute sports interview segment on the station. After she moved to Osceola, she was able to combine her talent for radio and love for the arts at KSOI. On top of being the station’s vice president, Mary Ellen has a short one-minute segment highlighting all kinds of art events happening in Clarke County and Des Moines.
“It’s so exciting that we get the opportunity to do it,” Mary Ellen said.
It’s All About Local, Local, Location
The team began with funding, visiting anyone who’d lend an ear. They got the much-needed funding from Bill Trickey, president of the Clarke County Development Corporation, but it didn’t end with the money. Trickey, a former New Orleans radio DJ, became a regular KSOI host of the local news segment, Clarke County Buzz. As a former school board member, he often focuses on what’s going on in the local schools of Clarke County.
“Part of what we do is make sure the community has a good perception of our school, our students and our teachers,” Trickey said.
As Trickey demonstrates, being a community radio station in a rural area goes beyond informing residents about local events. It includes putting many of those residents on-air. Throughout the day, people of all ages remind listeners of what station they’re listening to and include their name.
“You almost always know who they are,” Mary Ellen told us. “You think, ’Oh, that must be so-and-so’s grandson.’”
Even kids from the local elementary school take part in the daily tradition.
“They’ll have small kids lead the pledge of allegiance,” Trickey said. “It’s just so Americana.”
When we asked Trickey how he records, he showed us his iPhone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, KSOI moved nearly everything remote. All of the hosts record their segments on their own via their phones, iPads and computers. No more waking up to strange men on Hynek’s living room couch.
Even Jim Kimball uses his iPad to record his Heart of KSOI segment. It’s a wholesome one-minute community update, made even more so by the fact that he goes by the name “Old Doc Kimball” when on-air. In his previous segments, he has talked about the changing seasons, the shared experiences of the residents in the area and encouraged residents to do a rain dance. As his wife, Mary Ellen puts it, his segment is “folksy.” Other times, Jim will talk about watching out for tractors during harvest, reminding people to wear sunscreen, to get vaccinated or even to be careful on the ice.
“I’ve talked about marijuana use – got in trouble for that,” Jim added.
His tagline at the end of each segment reminds listeners to hug their loved ones and remember to smile. “I’m big on smiles,” he said.
For the people of Osceola, KSOI is a beacon of hope. The world can feel like living in a horror show — full of violence, shouting and strife. KSOI is a little audio antidepressant to remind them that their community is out there, no matter how bad things seem.
“We try to tell the good news,” Trickey said. “We have to pay attention to the negative, but we also need to make sure that we’re telling the good too, so the people don’t get discouraged. If all you hear is how bad things are, you lose your way.”