Undeterred by the frustratingly slow pace of fishing, Mark Ward stands in the bow of his boat methodically casting and retrieving a bright-green lure toward shore with his spinning rod.
He has been as uncharacteristically quiet as the wind, concentrating on his lure speed, occasionally jerking the rod tip to add extra motion to the bait, when out of nowhere he launches into an old country-western song. Although the tune is familiar, Ward is substituting his own lyrics about how bad the fishing has been.
That’s when Dale Moore joins in with his own made-up song using an old-timey tune. Moore is standing in the back of the boat, fruitlessly flinging a baited lure in search of a walleye, bass or northern pike.
The two old friends have been through a lot of ups and downs since they first met 33 years ago as co-workers at a Missoula radio station, but judging by their singing and lyrics, things have never been worse than right now.
Ward, 58, is better known across the state of Montana as the Captain of the Montana Outdoor Radio Show. Even Moore calls him captain. And when the Captain introduces Moore, he initially calls him Matt Mackinaw, a “goofy radio personality” that was known for “getting stuff wrong,” as Moore put it, when he used to call in to the Saturday morning show that first aired 17 years ago.
“Back when it first started, I used to tell stories,” Moore says. “Matt always had a story about some bizarre topic, like the mother-in-law fish or some crazy (stuff).”
The mother-in-law fish never liked Matt’s lure and would spit it back at him, he explained. Even after he left Missoula to become a recording executive in Nashville, Tenn., Moore would listen to the show and occasionally call in as Matt Mackinaw.
“That show has been huge for a lot of years,” Moore says. “My wife loves it. It’s amazing the number of women who like it.”
In a time when unscripted live radio shows are almost unheard of on terrestrial radio, as opposed to satellite radio, the Montana Outdoor Radio Show has steadily built an audience to the point that it is now broadcast on 23 radio station frequencies ranging from Dillon in the southwest, to Plentywood in the northeast, to Eureka in the northwest, and to Glendive in the east — diagonal distances that stretch about 600 miles across the vast and varied state. With computer technology, folks are even tuning in from across the United States, occasionally calling in to answer trivia questions for a chance to win prizes like one of the Captain’s “guaranteed” lures.
The show’s listeners also hear fishing and hunting reports from sporting goods clerks, Fish, Wildlife and Parks and bait shop owners from across Montana. Billings Gazette Outdoor editor Brett French is a weekly contributor to the radio show, as well.
The program airs from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. every Saturday morning. The Captain even has an annual goose blind broadcast, live from the Mission Valley, on the opening day of the waterfowl season.
“The people who are on the show have fun, and everyone adds to it,” Ward says. “Gary ‘The Perchman’ Pearson is 69, retired, and he still gets up every Saturday morning at 5 o’clock to answer the phone. How many people would do that?”
Ward firmly believes that the more people he involves in the show, the more people will listen.
When one of his old radio personalities — Walleye Wayne — returned to Montana to attend a sport show in Bozeman and once again join the broadcast, many of the show’s listeners stopped by their booth to say hello.
“He could hardly quit shaking hands,” Ward says. “That made me proud.
“I have so many people come up when I’m getting gas, and they recognize my truck because of all the decals, and they say: ‘Are you Walleye Wayne?’ No, I’m the Captain. ‘Oh.’ And they walk away,” he says and laughs.
Having become such a statewide celebrity in Montana’s enthusiastic outdoor world is a long way from Ward’s roots. Growing up in South Dakota he was the second oldest of seven children. His father, who owned a 4,000-square-foot grocery and dry goods store in Bryant, S.D., a town of only 350, started him out at the store working for 20 cents an hour and scolded him when he accepted a quarter tip for carrying a woman’s groceries to her car.
“My dad would absolutely roll over in his grave if he knew I was making a living fishing for walleye (as well as other species), and that’s what I do … fish and hunt,” he says.
It took a while to become the Captain, though. First he had to learn how to be a first mate.
So Ward attended a broadcasting school in Minnesota before landing a job paying $450 a month in Lemmon, S.D. He was quickly fired when he made suggestions to the owner on how to more successfully run the business, but at the same time he got an offer for more money if he moved to Bozeman. From there it was off to California before landing back in Montana at Missoula, where he met Moore.
At first, Moore says he didn’t like Ward. But they eventually turned into a phenomenal selling duo for radio — Mr. Markdown and Junior Markdown — doing live broadcasts from car lots where they marked down the prices with a large felt tip pen, always ad-libbing.
To find radio clients, Ward would go through the newspaper, cut out ads and make a demo radio ad for a business and pitch it. He’d also stop at tent sales and talk the owner into a live radio broadcast on the spot. Selling, after all, was in his blood. His great-great-grandfather started the family in the grocery business.
In 1986, Ward partnered with others as a co-owner of Missoula radio stations and a few years later joined with Moore to buy out another station and formed Western Broadcasting. In 1997, they sold that group of stations.
About 13 years before the Montana Outdoor Radio Show, Ward had hosted the Catchin’ the Big Ones radio show, a roundtable discussion broadcast from a Missoula restaurant. That’s when he landed the Captain Catchin’ nickname, since “every ship needs a captain.” In the fall, he pitched a Hunter’s Breakfast show.
When he put the Catchin’ the Big Ones logo on his boat, people would ask him where they could listen to the show, but it was only broadcast in Missoula. That’s when the idea was formed to launch a live statewide outdoor radio show.
“He took his passions and turned them into a business venture,” says Denny Bedard, aka Deadeye Denny and the director of the Montana Outdoor Radio Show.
When Ward first pitched the idea to advertisers, they asked what it would sound like. He wasn’t sure, but he sold the idea as: “It’s like a group of friends talking in a boat, and that’s what it’s like,” including the occasional fragment of a song.
“It’s successful because of who the Captain is,” says Bedard, who has worked on the show in one way or another since its inception. “Here’s a guy who absolutely loves to hunt and fish and likes to share his adventures with Montanans.”
Bedard says that while another nationally syndicated Northwest radio show may touch on fishing and hunting in Montana, none focuses exclusively on the state like the Montana Outdoor Radio Show.
“I like it because it’s actually the reason I got into radio in the first place — guys intermixing with the audience, none of this prerecorded stuff,” he says.
Pearson’s career in radio extends back 50 years, to the days when record companies mailed out new songs on 45 records. As the guy who answers the phone for people calling in to win contests, as well stepping in as director when Bedard is gone, Pearson said the show is the “crowning achievement of his radio career.”
Looking back at how the show has evolved over the years, Ward is happy with the changes.
“When you first start something, six months down the road expectations don’t always meet reality,” Ward says, but he holds true to the idea that the show is as much about the personalities that surround him as it is about the actual news information conveyed.
“Nobody ever walks up and says, ‘Great fishing report.’”
Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/lifestyles/recreation/radio-personality-has-steered-montana-outdoor-show-to-success/article_3886280d-7552-5562-bc2e-6c5058b49f95.html#ixzz3cfc0MuqZ