Alaska Radio: Of Moose and Men

Public stations, threatened by cuts, offer listeners company, information, and a lifeline

In the tiny log cabin studio of KTNA, Emmila Spires spins Big Band-era albums, reads from memoirs about Alaska's early days, and caps her show, called "Granny's Radio Recipes," with a recipe for a local dish like moosemeat sausage. "I gave 'em 'How to can whale' the other day. That fixed 'em," she says.

The broadcasts from Talkeetna, a tiny town nestled at the foot of Mount McKinley, air all over Alaska's upper Susitna River Valley. For listeners, KTNA is not a disembodied voice, but a companion and vital tie to the outside world. "Everyone who comes here feels it's theirs," says Ms. Spires.

Alaska's newest public radio station debuted in 1993. Despite the relative proximity of Anchorage - about two hours by car - it's the only station serving Talkeetna, a town of 300, and surrounding settlements. The audience, ranging from 1,200 to 10,000 depending on the season, isn't big enough to draw a commercial station.

Programming is eclectic. "Betty and Wilma" features women musicians, while "Earth and Beyond" focuses on ecology or astronomy. Weekly public forums range from domestic violence to chats about creativity with a local farmer-turned-artist. The tradeoff between development and environmental preservation is a common, heated theme.

"There's a lot of political things that go on in this little valley. It's not as laid-back, not as relaxing as it looks," says station manager Julianne McGuinness.

The station does round-the-clock coverage of the occasional emergency, like last summer's Big Lake wildfire that destroyed hundreds of homes. In the summer it offers up-to-the-minute reports on mountain accidents and rescues. And one daily segment sends personal messages to listeners without telephones - a sizable group in an area where many have no road access and tune in by battery-operated radio.

Like other public stations in Alaska, KTNA works on a shoestring budget. Headquarters is two rented cabins without running water. Furnishings were donated or built by volunteers. The outhouse bathroom stands slightly askew.

The station, manned by paid staffers and 30 volunteers, raises funds with spaghetti feeds, T-shirt sales, and underwritings from the local laundromat. There are 125 dues-paying members.

Still, attacks on public broadcasting by those who view it as a playpen for the elite cause anxiety. When Republicans won Congress in 1994, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting became a target for cuts.

For sole-server stations like KTNA, help from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is essential, Ms. McGuinness says. "If they disappeared ... that might be our death blow."

BUT state politics pose a greater threat. With oil revenues dwindling, state funding for public broadcasting has been cut by about half in the last eight years. The Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission, which sets state policy, no longer has a staff. Its executive director was laid off in July and this year's election expanded the legislature's Republican majority, which targets broadcasting and arts funding for cuts.

Despite the funding fights, KTNA has modest expansion plans to get its signal out to northern settlements now lacking clear radio reception.

Meanwhile, the station has emerged as a tourist attraction, drawing summer visitors who liken it to the folksy radio station on TV's "Northern Exposure."

The attention has its drawbacks. Tour buses sometimes block reception by the station satellite dish, which stands nearly vertical because of the far-north latitude. And although visitors can wander into the studio freely, they have to be reminded to keep quiet. Says a sign posted on the door: "Please close door softly - slamming causes albums to skip."

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