A rich heritage and great challenge: Dan Small on outdoor communications

Dan Small, a seasoned outdoor communicator and familiar Wisconsin sportsman, got an early start in outdoor writing. He grew up with his nose in Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, Sports Afield and other publications and he learned early on what good writing can do to an outdoor enthusiast. Inspired by the work of others, he decided to try it himself.
“I did a very unscientific poll of road killed animals I saw [while] driving, mainly while going hunting and fishing with my dad,” Small said. He sent a short article and chart with his results to a regional outdoor magazine and they published it.
That first article was printed in 1956 in upstate New York and Small continued to write through the 1970s and ’80s. His real leap into the industry though, when he decided to devote his entire career to the outdoors, didn’t come until 1984 at an OWAA conference in Traverse City, Mich.
There, at the northwestern tip of the Lower Peninsula, Small met Don Johnson from Milwaukee Public Television. Johnson convinced him to call producer Jack Abrams, and the first episode of Outdoor Wisconsin aired that November.
“I was kind of thrown into the fire,” Small said. “I learned on the job.”
Although he had no training as a television host, the show, now in its 27th season, is MPTV’s longest running local production. Outdoor Wisconsin made Small a recognized outdoor personality across Wisconsin. Television, however, is by no means his only medium.
In addition to his work with Outdoor Wisconsin, Small is a contributing editor for Wisconsin Outdoor News. He also hosts Dan Small Outdoors Radio, an online radio show that began airing in 2007. With his entire career dedicated to the outdoors, Small couldn’t be happier.
“I just feel more real, more genuine when outdoors. The more time I can spend off pavement, the happier I am,” Small said.
Still, his work is not without challenges. Small believes that much work in outdoor communications is passionate, but of a lesser quality. Elevating the industry, he said, will require a model. Outdoor communicators must not only inform, but also entertain and inspire.
For Small, that model is Gordon Mac- Quarrie, outdoor editor of the Milwaukee Journal from 1936 to 1956. MacQuarrie’s stories, many of which were fictionalized accounts of outdoor adventures across Wisconsin, still inspire outdoor enthusiasts today.
While Small holds MacQuarrie and other early outdoor writers in high regard, he admits that the industry has changed considerably since the middle of the last century.
“It’s hard to find that quality writing anymore,” Small said. “There is good writing, but in the mainstream media you don’t find that anymore — it’s how-to and where-to. The main challenge, then, is making a howto, where-to article interesting.”
Chris Dorsey, a longtime friend of Small and early guest on Outdoor Wisconsin, has seen him tackle that challenge in print and on the air.
“I think what separates Dan from a lot of programming is that he’s a storyteller,” Dorsey said. He described Small’s work, even his how-to and where-to articles, as a story with a plot and genuine, believable characters. “He’s more than a chest-bumping outdoor personality,” Dorsey continued. “He gives more depth to a story.”
Dean Bortz, editor of Wisconsin Outdoor News, noticed that although Small’s writing is quite different than the fictionalized stories MacQuarrie is famous for, he sees it producing a very similar effect.
“I think a lot of the reason that writers look at MacQuarrie or Aldo Leopold the way they do is the respect that they had for the outdoors, for the health of the earth,” Bortz said. “Dan’s writing has that quality.”
Small has been facing the challenges of outdoor communications for most of his life now, and for him, the rewards are instrumental in fostering a continuing outdoor heritage.
“Our challenge is to get the young parents who may have fished, canoed or camped as kids inspired to take their kids outdoors,” Small said. “The biggest problem isn’t license revenue; it’s losing the people who know the outdoors better than anyone else.”
“My first memory is fishing with my dad when I was not even 3 years old,” he said. “I credit my dad with getting me hooked.”
Now Small is passing that passion on to thousands of young Wisconsinites.
Bortz, when asked if he sees Small’s work inspiring youth participation in the outdoors, laughed. There are reader submitted photos of young hunters and anglers in every issue of Wisconsin Outdoor News, and to him, it seems obvious.
“Well, it’s got to!” he said.
Dorsey had a similar reaction. To him, Small’s work is some of the best in the genre, part of the new model for outdoor communicators. “He’s a pro,” Dorsey said. “That might be a good way to describe him.”
With a reputation like that, Small’s work must be inspiring someone. ◊
Jake McGinnis is currently completing a bachelor’s degree in writing at Northland College, where he serves as an editor of an independent student newspaper and a writing tutor. A lifelong outdoors enthusiast, he enjoys canoeing, fly-fishing and Nordic skiing. McGinnis was OWAA’s summer journalism intern.

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