In the world of television, very few series last a decade or longer. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking national networks or local PBS stations. The ever-changing landscape of television and the people who watch it makes 10 years a veritable eternity.
And that’s what makes Heartland Highways on WEIU-TV is so impressive; the program enters its second decade next month when Season 11 premieres Friday, Feb. 1, at 7:30 p.m. In fact, the show’s hosts say it’s going stronger than ever.
“Every year, we still get phone calls and emails and use our own curiosities to develop stories,” said the show’s co-host Kate Pleasant. “It’s a lot of fun.”
Pleasant, an Eastern Illinois University alumna who joined the WEIU team in 2007, hosts Heartland Highways with creator Lori Casey, who arrived at EIU in 2002 after working in public television in her native Minnesota.
“We kind of like to describe it as our version of CBS Sunday Morning,” explained Casey, who hosted a similar program at her previous station. “Just people, places, and collectors.
"I always like to say if you don’t know anything about Central Illinois, you could watch our show and see what it looks like, what there is to do, and what the people are like.”
In other words, there’s no hard and fast definition for Heartland Highways and the 130 episodes it has already aired. Basically, if it’s interesting and it’s happening within 200 or so miles of Charleston, there’s a good chance Casey and Pleasant could show up looking to film one of the two or three segments making up each half-hour program. The show is essentially a portrait of the very people who make up its viewership, and that’s an undeniable factor in its significant local popularity.
“A lot of our story ideas really do come from the audience,” said Pleasant. “We get phone calls after they’ve seen a show that triggers their memory of someone that does something that fits on our show.”
Sometimes, doing one story will also lead to ideas for future segments.
“A lot of times when we’re out at one place we discover another,” said Casey. “Or we’ll be talking to the person we’re interviewing and say: ‘Hey do you know anybody in the area that’s interesting?’ That’s happened a lot. We’re doing a story on someone, and they tell us about somebody else.”
She also says not growing up in the area has been beneficial when it comes to being on the lookout for potential stories.
“I came from Minnesota, so I had no idea where anything was,” Casey remembered. “I just collected different travel brochures, which I love doing. As an outsider, everything is interesting. People say when something’s right in your own backyard, you don’t pay attention to it. Everything was fascinating to me, and it still is today.”
With somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 segments produced over the years, Casey says there have been surprisingly few horror stories from the road.
“Most people are usually up for it,” said Casey. “They might be a little apprehensive at first, but we try to tell them it’ll be fun and it usually is. We’ve gotten to the point where if people don’t want to do it, we’re not going to make them. There are so many stories out there.
“We’ve had people that we’ve wanted to do stories on; maybe it’s a collector who is a little apprehensive about showing their collection on TV if it’s worth a lot of money. So we understand that. This is a fun process and we want it to be enjoyable for the people. If they really don’t want to do it, we say okay and just move on to something else.”
Pleasant did recall one instance in which she and her cohort brought a subject to tears.
“Those were tears of joy!” interjected Casey. “We did this story on a lady, probably in her 70s, named Pat Milchuck. She’s a hatmaker up in Paxton. She was just so excited and honored that we came to her little shop to do a story. I sat down, and she just started crying before I even asked a question.
“We actually feel it’s a privilege that these people let us come into their lives and kind of invade their home or business, but she felt the opposite. She couldn’t believe we’d asked her. She was such a sweet lady. We still keep in touch with her; she’ll still send a card every now and then.”
Heartland Highways is more or less a two-person operation: From the procurement of story ideas to the filming process to the editing and production process, Casey and Pleasant do it all.
“This doesn’t happen all the time, but we’ll go to a shoot and be chatting with the person we’re going to interview,” said Casey. “They’ll say: ‘Where’s the camera guy?’ and we’ll say: ‘You’re looking at her!’ Most of the time our shoots are really just Kate and I.
“Sometimes, if we’re really crunched for time, it’s just one of us doing it all. We do host the show, edit the show, shoot the show, haul the gear around … but we’re good with that. We like it.”
They like it, and it doesn’t sound like they intend to stop anytime soon.
“I’m amazed at the interesting people and places that are in our area,” said Casey. “It’s a great place to do a show like this.”