News story from :The Missourian - University of Missouri
April 4, 1999
Written by: David Kesmodel
RADIO FREE NATURE Peering through a magnifier, Steve Donofrio examines a compact disc in the studio of KOPN/89.5 FM. His Coke bottle-thick glasses slip slowly down his nose as he searches for the right tune. Moments later, the clock strikes noon. The theme song to the Lone Ranger reverberates throughout the studio. A horse whinnies and thumps his hooves, and a voice screams, "Radio Ranger is on the air!" The Ranger, nearly blind at age 44, introduces his imaginary yet faithful friend, Pygmy Pony. "That's right, Pony, it's a beautiful day," says the Ranger, who has hosted Rootin' Tootin' Radio for 15 years. "We should enjoy this, because they're expecting rain, sleet and snow tomorrow." This is old-time radio on the western end of the dial, where the Ranger blends classic country and western music with information on animals, trees and wildflowers. From high noon to 3 p.m. each Sunday, you get "everything from blufftop to bottom, the flora and fauna of the state of Missouri," the Ranger says. What's that, Pony? Oh, yes, it's time for Critter du Jour. "We're going to talk about our fine-feathered friend, the Eastern Bluebird," says the Ranger, reaching for his bird encyclopedia. "Bluebirds like to live on the edge of the woods, near open fields," he says. "The male bluebird has a red breast ... and the young are speckled for camouflage." If the Ranger sees a critter in his neck of the woods, others are probably seeing it. "You get on Critter du Jour by being seen at the old bunkhouse or being around here," he explains. It's important, he says, to tell listeners what the critter is like and to respect it." This mix that takes in everything from Americana to zoology can only be found at KOPN, where the Ranger works for free. He says has no desire to move into commercial radio. "I get to do a lot of things in three hours without selling you toothpaste or cars in between," says the Ranger, who pays his bills as a technical support specialist for Columbia Online Information Network (COIN). The young Ranger grew up in St. Louis and absorbed Western lore through television shows like "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke." The first birds he watched were the baseball Cardinals. He took his love for nature to MU in the 1970s and majored in urban forestry and horticulture. Hey, Pony, who's that riding onto the range? It's Kevin Walsh, manager of Streetside Records. He has something to say. Let's listen closely. The Ranger "has a good understanding of the regional culture here, and he brings all of that to the show," says Walsh, who also hosts a show on KOPN. "He has always been interested in the landscape of sound. He started with green living things and applied the same processes to the technical side of radio." Of course, the Ranger doesn't work as quickly as he once did. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a disease caused by the deterioration of the central portion of the retina. He has to use a loupe, or magnifier, to read the compact discs he plays. "It changes the way you assimilate information," the Ranger says. "I do a lot of reading online because I can control the size of the text." Thanks to the Ranger's amazing repertoire of sounds, Pony neighs and stomps his hooves. That's right, Pony, we shouldn't overlook the Ranger's ear for music. His classic country and western music ranges from Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline to Wayne Hancock, Tom Russell, Ian Tyson and Lucinda Williams. He also gives you doses of western swing and rockabilly. But the songs are really the glue keeping the Ranger's information about Missouri plant and animal life together. "It's called info-tainment," he says. Besides Critter du Jour, there's Tree Time, Nature Notes and Weed or Wildflower of the Week. For words of wisdom, you get Pure Poetry (or "cowboy poetry"), Common Sense Quotes and Pony's Pick - when Pony gets to chime in with his comments on everything from legislative bills to Mother Nature. "If I forgot Pony's Pick, he'd go ballistic," the Ranger says. Here comes Big Ronnie D, another KOPN disc jockey. Big Ronnie D says Donofrio's persona only changes slightly as the Ranger. "The audience is really getting the true Steve," he says. "People value that honesty." After the show, it's time for Ranger to ride Pony back to his old bunkhouse, 25 minutes away in Harrisburg. His wooded property is a nice spot for a guy who enjoys gardening and watching and feeding birds. Every two weeks in the winter, he and his wife Beth use up about 100 pounds of sunflower seeds to feed birds. What's that, Pony? Oh, yes, don't forget the bunkhouse dog, Siesta, a Labrador/Great Dane mix. And, yes, the Ranger married his wife in a special place - Boone Cave, now closed off to everyone but bats. He has lived outside of Missouri only for a three-year stint in Oregon, where he worked for a nursery and taught bonsai techniques at a community college. He still does a little landscape work. It keeps him happy after tough weeks at COIN. "There's no phone when I'm on a tractor," he says. "I call that time my brain enema." Work commitments kept the Ranger off the airwaves the last two Sundays. But he'll be back on the range at noon today. And, once again, his listeners will learn something new. "This show is for the active listener," says the Ranger. "I'm trying to help people see their world a little differently."
Copyright 1999 The Missourian - University of Missouri