Some high school graduates are so determined to move away from home as soon as they're old enough that they don't stop to think about what their hometown means to them. Perham native Cory Hepola was one of them.

Now 40 years old and a WCCO radio host and two-time Emmy Award winner, Hepola has made it in the big city, just like he always dreamt. He lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and kids, and has a good life. But recently, he started thinking more about his youth in Perham, about what he may have missed out on by moving away.

"I have a passion and love for Perham and Otter Tail County," Hepola said. "I've been really reflective and nostalgic for my youth and all these things in Otter Tail County I never even bothered to do or try to learn about. (When I was young) I was so laser-focused on where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do."

So, when Otter Tail County reached out to Hepola to ask him if he wanted to help promote the county through a film documentary, he said 'Yes.' And the 7-part video series, "Rural By Choice," started to take form.

Hepola holds out a fish he caught while filming Rural By Choice. (Submitted by Cory Hepola)
Hepola holds out a fish he caught while filming Rural By Choice. (Submitted by Cory Hepola)

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Throughout "Rural By Choice," Hepola explores even the most rural corners of Otter Tail County, interviewing residents, trying his hand at fishing, learning about farming, and discovering all the reasons why people love to live here. He took the opportunity to learn more about his home county — the parts he never explored in his youth — and all the reasons why people choose to stay.

"I just realized there was so much beauty I hadn't explored," Hepola said.

Directed by Micah and Jenna Kvidt of Kvidt Creative, and co-produced by Hepola and Otter Tail County's Rural Rebound Initiative Coordinator Erik Osberg, "Rural By Choice" premiered its first episode at the Comet Theater in Perham on Sept. 11 before being released online the following day. Since then, the ensuing episodes have been released weekly on the Otter Tail Lakes Country YouTube channel, and they've gained thousands of views from people across the country.

Recently, it was announced that the series was selected to be showcased at the Twin Cities Film Festival, among other distinguished entries: "I was totally humbled," Hepola said.

Though he, along with Osberg and the Kvidts, politely thanked the callers who gave them the news about their series being featured at the festival, Hepola admitted that, as soon as the call was over, they were yelling and jumping and celebrating in excitement.

"Rural By Choice" will be screened in-person at the Showplace ICON Theatre in Minneapolis as part of the festival, on Oct. 24 at 4 p.m., as well as online. After the showing, Hepola and the other filmmakers will host a Q&A. For tickets and more information about the festival, visit twincitiesfilmfest.org.

What he saw and learned





Hepola stands with his family at the premiere of Rural By Choice with his family at the Comet Theater. (Submitted by Cory Hepola)
Hepola stands with his family at the premiere of Rural By Choice with his family at the Comet Theater. (Submitted by Cory Hepola)

Throughout his time filming the series, Hepola had the opportunity to speak with a wide variety of people throughout the county. He kept the interviews casual, letting himself simply see where the conversations went — and he found that they ended up going in quite interesting directions.

"I planned to go fishing (with Erik Osberg), but I didn't know where the conversation would go or lead," Hepola said. "Fishing was great, but the conversation was the truly memorable part."

It stood out to him how different Osberg's life is from his own. Due to his job and urban environment, Hepola is very connected to his phone. He was shocked to see that when Osberg goes fishing, which he does whenever the weather is nice, he completely disconnects. That's something Hepola is hardly able to do himself, and he admires it.

Hepola also had the opportunity to delve into deeper, more difficult topics in his conversations for the series, such as the cultural and political divides between rural and urban Minnesota. He began to realize how these divides often stem from stereotypes. As he explains in his docuseries, for example, he had preconceived notions about farmers. Despite his mother growing up on a farm, he thought farmers lived simple lives and did a lot of dirty work. But after spending a day working on Otter Berry Farm for the docuseries, he realized that his idea of farming was all wrong; he didn't know anything about farming or the hard work that goes into it.

"This is the danger of stereotypes," he said. "When people are willing to listen and try to empathize, a great dialogue comes up."

"There's this belief about the rural and urban divide, that we're so different and that we can't get along, but that's inaccurate," he continued. "Let's celebrate our differences. If people go in with an open ear and mind, we learn so much from each other… There are great people from all over."

Cory Hepola stares out at a lake during sunset. (Submitted by Cory Hepola)
Cory Hepola stares out at a lake during sunset. (Submitted by Cory Hepola)

Hepola said people have been reaching out to him about "Rural By Choice" and telling him how inspirational they find it. He's even received emails from viewers in Washington and Texas who were able to relate to it.

Everyone has a home and a place where they grew up, and Hepola believes "Rural By Choice" encourages everyone to look back at their youth and reconsider the people and places around them. What did you miss? Who or what did you take for granted? You'll find that you grew up in a really special place, he said.

Filming the series has only enhanced Hepola's love for his hometown and county.

"(Otter Tail County) is a special community," he said. "That's been kind of humbling — the amount of people from home who are proud that one of us was able to tell this narrative… I want everybody from Perham and Otter Tail County to know just what a special place it is."