At the end of a gravel road is Joe Hynek’s Victorian farmhouse. Next to the television in the living room is KSOI 91.9 FM, the only nonprofit full-power radio station that has served the south-central Iowa community for a decade.
Three times a week at 12:30 p.m., the local school superintendent jumps on the air to talk about the happenings at school. Four times a day, doctor Amy Hynek-McFarland shares tips on “A Healthy Life.” Funeral announcements by Angie Hynek are scheduled at 6:45 a.m. and 9:45 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
Among them is Jim “Old Doc” Kimball, the retired but most locally trusted physician, who always ends his program with his signature line,
“Above all, just remember, hug your wife, love your kids and have a great day.”
Murray, the town of 693 in Clarke County, is what most Americans would consider rural. Except for a church, a school, a convenience store, a cemetery and a library, the land of 0.79 square miles is left to the families and trains that cross the town a couple of times a day.
An hour south of the state’s capitol Des Moines, Murray, like many similar small towns buried under farmlands, is a world away from the Caucus-hosting cities that always make headlines.
As the state of the first Caucuses, Iowa has attracted candidates who came to drop loads of money and bombard residents with political opinions. In 2024, however, the Iowa Democrats are for the first time casting mail-in ballots and the Republicans have shifted their main focus to other states like New Hampshire and South Carolina.
When the spotlights wear off, the local politics are less about the “pressing issues of our time” and more about keeping the roads clean and getting the word out so the missing dogs can be found and the newly deceased won’t be buried on top of their predecessors.
In a time when politicians have parachuted loads of money, dyeing voters red or blue before they leave, Hynek and his KSOI remind people that there is always a home and a community they can retreat to.
The idea of owning a radio station started in 2006. At the time, Hynek had received his master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Iowa State University in two years and would be invited a year later to present his musical “Farmer Song” at the 2007 New York International Fringe Festival.
His dream was to make friends, share new music and “make the community interesting.” A year later, the young men filed an application to the Federal Communications Commission for a Noncommercial Educational radio license.
“I’m just very excited about music and this opportunity to start a radio station came up, and I thought that’s a really cool idea,” Hynek said. “So I got a little bit out of hand.”
Yet, in Murray and its neighboring town Osceola, where local diners display stacks of business cards and people greet each other through the windows of their trucks, a radio station is more than a hobby or a dream – it’s about staying alive and watching out for each other as much as you can.
“If there’s a little church in that community, there’s usually a couple families that really take ownership of that and they work hard to keep the building in good shape and organize activities,” Hynek said.
Growing up on his parents’ farm in Ellston, a town 20 minutes south of Murray, Hynek knows that in a rural area, people can’t go far just by themselves.
Hynek invited his father to be the treasurer and his mom to be the secretary. Grandma Marge Perry was the weather reporter before she passed away in 2018 at the age of 94. Hynek’s sister, Amy Hynek-McFarland, is the doctor who gives health tips and Stacy McFarland, Joe Hynek’s brother-in-law, hosts a music show called “New Song of Week.”
About half an hour away from the house is the antenna on Hynek’s friend, Ken Cheers’ farmland. Transmitting the intimate moments across an 80-mile radius, the 496-foot tall antenna waves the individuals into what Hynek calls the south-central Iowa community.
Rather than a business or an organization, Hynek prefers to call his radio station a hangout.
Ever since the radio went on air in 2012, Hynek made his radio station – and his on-mortgage home where the station was set up – available to anyone who wanted to do music.
Within a short time, many volunteers got in touch with Hynek and started broadcasting their programs. They aired country, blues, jazz, rock, and held porch concerts. Many nights, various DJs would come into Hynek’s living room to yell into the vocal microphone and some of them were like,
Hynek frequently cited the word “fun” when he reminisced about the time when it was all music. But as they became adults and each secured a day job and a family, even the most intimate started to grow apart.
Tom, whose last name Hynek didn’t share, was one of the last few who still came to the house to air their programs. For one night, Tom came into the house at eight p.m. for his show but was too drunk to leave. The next morning, when Hynek’s wife Annie Nawab woke up and saw a strange man sleeping on the couch of her living room –
The drama, along with the outbreak of COVID-19, put a period to the open house. After that, the farmhouse with a dark green conical roof was left to the family of three. Now, the volunteers who still host their shows send their recordings via email.
Famous Paul and Mojo Moomey, two friends who were both introduced to Hynek by the underwriter of the radio station, have hosted weekend shows playing country and classic rock for almost as long as the station had been on the air.
The commitment is worth it, they both said. Students now ask Paul to play songs for them and total strangers would walk up to him and tell him that they like his show. For Moomey, bands from as far away as Canada, Ireland and New Zealand have asked him to play their songs.
“It’s fun to have people involved and they wanted to do it,” Hynek said. “So I’m like, that’s what we built the radio station for.”
“They said if you build it, they will come. And that is true.”
Murray, along with other towns that are at least 20 minutes away from each other, scatter across the gently rolling hills and flat plains of cornfields in the state of Iowa.
Linking the towns are highways dominated by trucks and SUVs. In a place where autopilot has yet to become a trend, radio is the only entertainment available to the locals who spend a considerable portion of their days on the road.
During political seasons in the past, the for-profit radio station would start a chain of advertisements, airing voices that were bought and paid for.
“They have so many advertisements. It’s like advertisement advertisement advertisement. And, you know, you just get tired of it,” Hynek said.
In November and the following months, when the farmers are done with fall harvests and the first Caucus is about to kick off, the entire state is mostly left with politics to care about. During the past Presidential Elections, the state consistently archived a top ten ranking in voter turnout and attracted numerous candidates to throw campaigns.
He votes, but also feels that life can’t just be about politics. At a time when he has come to realize that national media has become more and more political, Hynek felt the urge to have a place where the locals can have some time to their own, listening to music and be informed about weather and events to come. And maybe, for one day, the Amish store owner who has tabooed electricity will have a message that she wants to deliver.
“The only way it could be about politics is politics by omission,” Hynek said. “Just by not covering anyone’s viewpoint, (the radio station) gives people a chance to enjoy being with each other without having to be influenced by all that.”
Located in a town where Wi-Fi is still a relatively novel term, Hynek’s farmhouse resembles a retreat that secludes its owner from modern society. The Tesla Model S parked in the backyard breaks the scene.
Every once in a while, Hynek takes his family out to West Des Moines for a movie or a dining out at a shopping complex occupied by a not-so-rural combination of Starbucks, Trader Joe’s and Costco.
As an agricultural engineer at Corteva Agriscience, an American agricultural chemical and seed company, Hynek has thought about “getting more rural” and owning farmland – a small cornfield, perhaps. But distancing himself from the rest of the world has never been part of the plan.
When I asked him how he liked the complex, Hynek gazed into the signs that were painted into colors,
“This is average America. Murray is true America.”
Some twenty years ago, Hynek put a mortgage on his house. About 40 minutes north of the farm where he was born and raised and an hour south of the city where he holds his job, Murray almost perfectly sits on the middle point of past and future, life and work as well as a young music lover and a secluded farmer.
It’s the place that hosts the KSOI. It’s the place where Hynek calls home.