Backstory: A farmer who tills the airwaves
FORT MYERS, FLA. — For more than a decade, the humorist known to radio listeners in Maine as "The humble Farmer" threw a summer picnic in his backyard, with free lobster for all comers.
Word got out, and after a few years people "from away" – Bostonians, New Yorkers – were rolling up to his farmhouse in St. George, Maine, in overflowing charter buses. Robert Skoglund – aka The humble Farmer, neighbor humble, or your buddy humble – reveled in it. These were his fans. Or they would be, once they heard his radio show or read his newspaper column or saw his stand-up act at some local banquet hall.
To his wife Marsha, though, they were mostly just people who wanted free lobster. And in 1994, skeptical of its value and alarmed at the expense, she insisted he stop.
"It was the greatest marketing tool," says a still touchy Mr. Skoglund, who is 71 now and has striking blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a slightly unpredictable, manic energy. "Marsha couldn't see that you have to fertilize the field before the crops will grow."
After 28 years on Maine public radio, and at an age when many neighbors in a mobile home park here in Florida are swinging golf clubs or gliding past the swaying palms on three-wheeler bikes, The humble Farmer is still tilling those fields. He spends so many hours making his radio show that he rarely steps out into the glorious sunshine. He is so short on cash – he gets $30 a show – that he still fishes for stand-up gigs at local trailer parks while wintering here, accepting fees that are often as old-fashioned as the jazz records on his show.
Even before the era of lobster giveaways, the love of fans – the sense that he was enriching their lives in some way – always mattered more than money. But these days, as he looks back over his life, he has begun to wonder whether that has been enough.
Skoglund never looked for a life in radio. After aborted careers as a jazz musician and schoolteacher, he returned to his rural roots, digging gardens and mowing fields in the same Maine county his ancestors settled in 1734.
In 1978, public-radio producers noticed his gag personals in a Maine newspaper ("Antique dealer seeks attractive young woman interested in one nightstand") and asked him to host a weekly jazz and humor show. A decade later, at the height of his popularity, The Boston Herald ran a cover story calling him "New England's Answer to Garrison Keillor."
Skoglund has a master's degree in linguistics and his on-air persona is that of a thinking-man's rustic, always one or two brain cells ahead of all those ridiculous city folk. His humor – delivered between 1930s-era jazz records in short segments he calls "rants" – is by turns wry, cryptic, and cranky, a hybrid of Mr. Keillor, Andy Rooney, and that grandpa from the "Pepperidge Farm Remembers" ads, served up with a crotchety Down-East accent.
The touchstones of his show, on Friday evenings, are small-town life, high prices, and people "from away." But he often veers onto tangents as esoteric as Chomskian linguistics, Parisian restaurants, and the gulag.
"Now I know that you have read 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' and probably other accounts of prison life," he said in one rant, after mentioning a friend whose father survived nine years in Siberia. "So even if you have been spared this particular form of cultural enrichment, you know what was going on in Russian prison camps 50-so years ago.... Can you think of anything that would take more out of you than a prison camp in Siberia? Years later, they put the old man in a nursing home in Maine. And he died the next day."
The humble Farmer drew a respectable 13,000 listeners per show last spring, according to Arbitron figures. For many devotees, Skoglund is a precious relic from an age when public radio was a forum for distinctive local voices. "It's a show you want to have on when you're working a piece of wood with a chisel," says Matt Dunlap, Maine's secretary of State and a longtime listener. "It is kind of this country common sense that he reflects against everything."
But his humor is not for everyone. Officials at the Maine Public Broadcasting Network (MPBN) say that Skoglund's over-the-top accent and parochial sensibility produce equal numbers of detractors and admirers. Lou Morin, MPBN's marketing and communications manager, says, "You either like it or you don't."
The idea that people may not like him cuts Skoglund particularly deep. The admiration of listeners is what has sustained him through years of meager pay. The other evening here in Florida, Skoglund left more than an hour early for a stand-up act at the nearby Tropical Palms mobile-home park. "I like to be the first one there," he says in the car, Maine license plate HOHUMB, "so I can shake every hand that comes through the door."
Skoglund has saved little for retirement, and has large credit-card debt. His wife was recently diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, forcing her to cut back her work hours. They could no longer afford payments on their mobile home here, so they moved in two years ago with a 92-year-old neighbor, who lets them stay free in exchange for cooking and care.
Last year, for the first time in nearly three decades on the air, Skoglund asked MPBN for pay – $30 a show. Yet finances seem less worrisome to him than his show's uncertain future. In a number of "rants" in recent years, Skoglund strayed into contentious political territory. A few weeks before the launch of the Iraq war in 2003, he hinted on-air at what he saw as parallels between President Bush and Adolf Hitler.
More recently, while reflecting on "what is happening in our country today," he read from an encyclopedia entry on Mussolini-era fascism. And just before last November's elections, he taped a rant that MPBN managers saw as a veiled attack on a local antispending initiative on the ballot. The network pulled the show before airtime.
In November, MPBN's vice president of programming, Charles Beck, sent him a letter warning that "The humble Farmer" was in peril. Mr. Beck noted Skoglund's repeated defiance of warnings against on-air political talk, and listed seven "points of understanding" whose violation would lead to the show's cancellation. Beck ordered Skoglund to never again opine on politics, companies, commercial products, or organizations, and to say nothing in public of his affiliation with MPBN without prior approval.
Skoglund says those rants were like many others over the years – just one man's reflections on life and the news. But in a time of polarization over the Iraq war, Maine Public Broadcasting Network – an NPR and PBS affiliate with an $11 million budget, five TV stations, and seven radio stations – saw them as intemperate and inappropriate.
"We have him on the air for his humor and jazz show," says Mr. Morin. "When it becomes a political program, it ceases to be the reason we have it on board."
Since late last year, Skoglund has taped two programs: a music-only edition for the Maine airwaves, and the traditional jazz and humor show for his website and two other public radio stations – WDNA in Miami, Fla.; and KGLP in Gallup, N.M. – that recently picked it up.
Morin says Skoglund's decision to pull rants from the Maine show was his own. "His position is, I want to be able to say anything outrageous or say nothing at all," Morin says. "Our position is, Can't you just go back to the show you've been doing for 28 years?"
Skoglund's wife, Marsha, says her husband hasn't been himself lately. In a small studio in the breezeway of a mobile home here, he consoles himself by reading e-mails from listeners as baffled and angry as he is at the fate of The humble Farmer. "I have more friends than anybody in the state of Maine," he says. "That to me is the greatest thing – to have someone drive up to your dooryard and say, 'I've been listening for 15 years.' What a flattering thing to be the clown for the most intelligent people in northern New England."