O. Kay Henderson is something of a throwback. 

Not since the Des Moines Register’s legendary George Mills covered the Iowa Statehouse in the 1950s and ’60s has a reporter covering Iowa’s political and economic storms been on a first-name basis with so many state and national leaders. 

Henderson, 54, has done the same job since she graduated from Iowa State University in 1987. She covers state government, often writing three or more stories a day for Radio Iowa, a network of 72 independent radio stations in 46 Iowa towns.

Radio Iowa stations collectively reach more than 1 million listeners. Most live in and around county-seat towns, none in communities larger than Sioux City. 

Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Dubuque have no Radio Iowa stations, although Henderson is well known in public television households for her 30-plus years of appearances Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press.” She also provides analysis of Iowa news on cable network shows.

“Kay Henderson seems to know everyone and everything about Iowa politics,” said Michael Gartner, former editor of the Register and a Pulitzer Prize winner for the Ames Tribune.

“In her calm and collected way, she has become an encyclopedia of the state’s politics and policies, past and present,” Gartner said. “She has a great voice and is very good on radio and television. As an interviewer she comes across as authentic and believable as well as knowledgeable.”

“She’s a great colleague,” said David Yepsen, host of “Iowa Press” and the Register’s former chief political reporter. “She really understands agriculture and cares about rural Iowa. … She has the ability to talk to people, including politicians, without being threatening or heavy-handed.”
Henderson’s unusual name, O. Kay, was a nod from her parents and siblings to the fact that she was born without problems to a 46-year-old mother and 52-year-old father in rural southwest Iowa. 

She said she was pretty much destined to cover politics after arriving on Election Day in 1964 to a mother who voted from her hospital room and a father who served as an election judge.

Her first radio job was doing play-by-play of the 1985 legislative session as an intern for WOI Radio. “I had to learn on the fly,” she said, by filling dead air when lawmakers unexpectedly adjourned to caucus. 

Henderson was one of the original three hires when Radio Iowa was created in 1987 and has been news director since 1994. 

Radio Iowa is Iowa’s largest news network. Most days it posts as many Iowa-related stories online (its website is RadioIowa.com) as the Des Moines Register – and that’s with a staff that is a fraction of the Register’s size. 
The network’s four news reporters, including Henderson, are augmented with local reports from member radio stations, much like newspapers in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport now share stories. 

Henderson said that as news director, her goal is simple: “I want our listeners to hear from us the most important story that happened in Iowa today.” 

On a recent Monday, Henderson filed stories about Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bennet’s climate-action plan, the launch of Polk County Democrat Eddie Mauro’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, and Des Moines leaders objecting to construction of a new federal courthouse.

I asked Henderson why she continues to pursue a career in radio it in an age when there are so many other media options. “I like radio because the words mean something,” she said. “When you watch television, often the words get lost because of the images. When you read a newspaper, you don’t hear the emotion in the quotes.

“Radio is that sweet spot in the middle,” she said.