As a new work week began in Postville, Iowa, last November, Jeff Abbas, with his bushy gray beard and ample paunch, manned the mike at the town’s lone radio station, KPVL. After a song by Billy Bragg, Abbas delivered the latest update on Agriprocessors, the largest kosher slaughterhouse in the world and the largest employer in this town of two thousand tucked among the rolling hills just west of the Mississippi River. In May 2008, Agriprocessors had been the target of what at the time was the largest immigration raid in U.S. history, in which nearly four hundred workers were arrested. On this Monday six months later, Postville was abuzz with the news that the company had declared bankruptcy.
“Five before nine, currently fifty-five degrees on our way to an absolutely stellar day here in God’s country. I’m Jeff Abbas. We are exploring the Agriprocessors situation today all the way back as far as May, just seeking your comments and questions.”
Locals interested in learning about the fallout from the Agriprocessors raid initially had to rely on the legions of national media that parachuted into town. In Postville, there was little coverage. Sharon Drahn, the editor and only reporter at Postville’s weekly newspaper, the Postville Herald-Leader, told me that the demands of covering the town council, the schools, and the churches left her little time to report substantively on Agriprocessors, before or after the raid. The paper also has a limited base of advertisers in a town this small, which makes offending the business community risky.
The closest serious newsgathering operations are some two hours away by car, in Waterloo and Dubuque; a professor at the University of Northern Iowa described this rural corner of Iowa as a “media desert.” Indeed, when I went to Postville in 2006 to report on the working conditions at the slaughterhouse for The Forward, a Jewish weekly based in New York City, there was practically no local coverage of the problems at the plant, even though the owners—the Rubashkin family, Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn—had clashed with locals since the slaughterhouse opened in the late 1980s. The company had been investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and criticized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Abbas was not a likely candidate to fill the void. As KPVL’s only employee, he was already in charge of nearly all of the station’s programming, and he doesn’t even draw a regular paycheck (more on that later). Abbas’s background is in music programming, not journalism. But in the months after the raid, Abbas tutored himself in the art of sources and government documents and created his own mix of news, commentary, and civic engagement, eventually becoming the local authority on the raid and its aftermath. Abbas’s expanded role—and more particularly his critical bent toward Agriprocessors—which has included turns as a talking head on cnn, npr, and Al-Jazeera English, drew criticism from members of KPVL’s board and requests for Abbas to tone it down. But it has also won Abbas a significant fan base in Postville. “A lot of this stuff was only discussed in hushed tones at the diner before,” said Lynda Waddington, a reporter for the Iowa Independent who has covered the Agriprocessors story, but who works from her home in Marion, Iowa, a two-hour drive away. “Jeff forced them into an uncomfortable position where they had to talk about it or at least listen to it.”
This is not the sort of programming that anyone expected when Postville’s Lutheran church secured a radio license in 2002. “We wanted something like that station in that TV show Northern Exposure—with the storefront window, where they could see the world go by right in front of them—you know, to be more in touch with the community,” said Nina Taylor, KPVL’s former treasurer. The early programming was designed to provide multilingual updates on snow days and tornado warnings. With a signal that extends about ten miles outside of town, KPVL was primarily a repeater for Iowa Public Radio.
When Abbas joined KPVL in 2006 as the station manager, his main goal was to entertain the diverse groups brought to the town by the slaughterhouse. The Guatemalan baker hosted “Noche Latina” for the workers, for example, and Sunday afternoons were given over to Jewish music for the kosher factory supervisors. Abbas did news briefs on the half hour and hour, but he admits they were “mostly canned—just stuff I pulled off the wire, along with the weather.”