Minnesota Bound--and Gagged

In public citizen Ron Schara, the great outdoors meets the almighty dollar. Guess which wins.

Dig out your duckboots and your blaze-orange vest: Ron Schara Communications is gassing up for its busiest time of year. As any nature boy can tell you, it's the killing season, and hunting is in the air--and on it too. These autumn months Ron is awfully busy. The retired Strib writer continues to pound out at least one column a week for his former employer, while managing to put together Minnesota Bound, his weekly half-hour show dedicated to the appreciation of Minnesota's great outdoors.

But though he's introduced each week as an "award-winning outdoor journalist," you'll need to be reminded that Schara is also a professional one. It's not that his show lacks polish; on the contrary, it's as burnished as you can expect any Hi-8 advertisement for hunting, fishing, and motor sports to be. Instead, questions as to Schara's credibility seem to hinge on the curious advertorial slant of the show (KARE-11, Sunday, 11:05 p.m.). The fact that Minnesota Bound is underwritten by motorboat companies, hunting suppliers, and the Minnesota Lottery could be seen as disturbing enough. That Schara himself stumps for many of these products and services during the commercial breaks makes you wonder whether it's not an outright infomercial. "All trails lead to Midway Ford," he says from the bed of a late-model pickup, his ever-faithful dog Raven wagging cheerfully beside him. And in Schara Country, they do.

"It's not meant to be 60 Minutes," says Chris Niskanen, outdoors editor at the Pioneer Press. "I mean, Ron's not doing 60 Minutes of the outdoors. If you watch Saturday morning TV, it's not uncommon for outdoors programs to have commercials about products, whether they're guns or fishing equipment, while the people in the show are using the same products. It's very common. I don't think TV viewers are being hoodwinked in any way. Anyone who watches Saturday morning outdoors shows knows that's part of the business."

The comparison to Saturday morning TV is apt. In recent years, these time slots have been overrun by paid programming. Infomercials for everything from Nordic Track to the George Foreman Grill control the airwaves until the denizens of the PGA, the NCAA, and, or course, the PBA roll out some time around lunch. Even in its late Sunday night slot, sandwiched between other news and specialty sports segments on KARE-11, there isn't much to distinguish Minnesota Bound from the other advertorial programming of a Saturday morn; the show is soft as church music.

Yet there's no question that Minnesota Bound comes directly out of an older tradition that has, for decades, produced fishing and hunting programming from Northern Minnesota--shows like Babe Winkelman's Outdoor Secrets. The difference here, perhaps, is that Schara has tried to leverage his position as an erstwhile journalist to establish a broad interest in Minnesota Bound. "He's trying to paint with a broad brush," says the Star Tribune's current outdoors specialist, Dennis Anderson. "You know, he's not affecting a Southern twang and hookin' a bass." A guy like Babe Winkelman, on the other hand, has no compunctions about dedicating a whole show to the bloody joys of blasting a few ringnecks ("harvesting," they call it) out of the sky.

It wasn't always so for Ron Schara. In his not-undistinguished career at the Strib spanning nearly three decades, Schara developed a voice for traditional outdoors reporting and commentating. While the magazine approach of Minnesota Bound is the shape of TV today, there are longstanding traditions of newspaper coverage on the state's hunting and fishing communities--traditions Schara helped shape over the years. Dennis Anderson points out that Minnesota readers are "considerably more attuned to hunting and fishing as an outdoor beat than other large urban areas like Chicago or Cleveland. One out of two people in the state, generally speaking, fishes. A fairly high percentage either hunt or have people who hunt in their families. So those sports or activities command a good deal of coverage."

The Pioneer Press's Niskanen concurs: "We have a very strong hunting and fishing community in Minnesota. It's like covering baseball during the Twins season, you cover duck hunting and deer hunting, and things like that. And I think in the Twin Cities as a whole, we have probably the best outdoor writers in the country."

Is Ron Schara one of them? Like any old-timer worth his flannel, he's not always in tune with changes in the perception and practices of sportsmen in these feel-good, PC times, nor with the pretense of objectivity in meat-and-potatoes journalism. Even today, he tends to climb atop his weekly Strib soapbox to gripe about the vagaries of nonresident hunting fees and ATV grouse hunting (in which the 18-49 crowd speed hell-bent through the brush, opening fire on sluggish fowl)--subjects that must seem pretty unsavory to a nonhunting urban readership.

But at least Schara's able to express his opinion in the paper; on Minnesota Bound, he appears to be so beholden to advertisers and sponsors (or so determined to appeal to a general-interest audience) that he says virtually nothing about anything.

If you're one of the poor souls (or brave shut-ins) who depends on KARE-11 and Minnesota Bound for your worldview, you might be forgiven for assuming that outdoor recreation in this state must necessarily involve either a firearm or an internal-combustion engine. And for many Minnesotans, that may well be true. But in the land of 10,000 lakes, this kind of soft-water journalism doesn't do anything to improve the bad reputation either of TV or sportsmen. And in spite of his signature admonition to "introduce the great outdoors to a kid," most preadolescents would find Schara's dumbed-down approach more demeaning than a BB-gun safety seminar.

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