By Jenny Neyman
Allen Auxier is a double rarity in radio.
As station manager of KDLL public radio in Kenai, most of his work for the last nearly 14 years has been done, as would be expected of the position, behind the scenes, rather than behind the microphone. Though his Thursday “Morning Concert” classical music program has been a staple at 91.9 FM for many years, mostly when he’s on air it’s to give the station ID, read announcements, preface tests of the emergency broadcast system and other such nonflashy nuts and bolts of radio work.
Yet to even occasional listeners, Auxier’s has been the voice of KDLL, whether or not they know the name behind it. In part it’s the tone — a resonance honed as an actor belting to the cheap seats above the clash of dishes and rustle of programs. But decibels are useless without diction, and Auxier’s got enunciation as etched as a freshly grooved LP. The usually ignored “h” in where and when, a victim of lazy English palates, is delivered with gusty accuracy. The “a” of that and chat gets the crispness of a mouth used to stretching in pronunciation calisthenics. Auxier’s is the type of voice that is distinguishable from a distance and discernable from the din of a crowded room.
But Auxier is known as more than the voice of KDLL. In a medium where people are heard, not seen, he’s gained the added distinction of being recognizable by sight as well as sound. With the signature beard and handlebar ’stache he’s had since being discharged from the Army in 1972, he’s not just been the face of KDLL, he’s been the moustache of it.
Until Friday, that is, when he took his 40-year career in TV and radio broadcasting off the air, tuning, instead, to retirement.
“Allen’s going to be a tough act to follow. He’s been around for such a long time and he’s so ingrained. He is KDLL,” said Ariel Van Cleave, the new station manager.
It’s been a good run, but a long one, and Auxier is ready for other pursuits with his wife, Mari, who is retiring at the end of June from the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. House projects (for Allen), gardening (for Mari), traveling (for both), and more time for his hobbies — Friday poker games, volunteering with Rotary, community theater performances and riding his Harley-Davidson Electroglide Classic — are supplanting work responsibilities.
“I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. I’ve been basically working in radio and TV for 40 years, working on Social Security for 52 years — it’s about time to start collecting. And today (Monday) happens to be my 66th birthday, so it was real easy figuring out what my last day of work was going to be,” he said.
His first day of work at KDLL was in June 2000, a newcomer to the Kenai Peninsula but a return to the state, having spent 21 years in Bethel.
Auxier grew up in the Phoenix area, graduating from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1970. That September he was drafted into the Army. Having a minor in Russian language in college, he figured on attending the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, California, and being deployed to Europe.
“I’d learn more Russian and go to Germany and listen to Radio Moscow on the headphones. That is what I figured was going to happen, but somewhere along the line I checked the box that said I enjoy camping and they put me in the infantry and sent me to Vietnam,” Auxier said.
Though a firearms buff — muzzle loading, particularly — and a supporter of veterans, he came back from Vietnam in 1972 with Montagnard bracelets protesting the war, made by Vietnamese craftsmen from old munitions shells. He still wears them today.
After his discharge from the service in 1972, he started working for the U.S. Teacher Corps, producing instructional TV programs for use on the Navajo Nation reservation. His boss at the time was a consultant on starting an instructional TV program at Kuskokwim Community College in Bethel, and mentioned a job opening for a producer/director. On Aug. 22, 1975, Auxier was in Alaska, on a plane to Bethel.
“When I was flying into the place I had that feeling in my heart, ‘I’m coming home.’ It was a great place to live. Horrible weather but really wonderful people,” Auxier said.
As he got the instructional TV program up and running it was producing 30 hours of live TV every week for three years, with classes being broadcast to the villages around Bethel. But it was a federal grant program, and once the grant expired, so did his position.
He then went to work for KYOK-TV as a program director and on-air switcher, all the while volunteering for the local radio station, as well.
In 1996, after 21 years in Bethel, it was time to pursue a dream, and the Auxiers left for Tacoma, Washington, where they helped found and were co-owners of a dinner theater company, Spirit Theatre.
“To satisfy my acting cravings. Of course, as with most dinner theaters, it didn’t make money and Mari told me I had to get a real job,” he said.
The station manager position at KDLL presented a two-with-one-stone opportunity — a return to Alaska and to public broadcasting.
“As I tell people, this is picture-book Alaska. We’re on the road system, life is good,” he said.
The KDLL position has been an interesting challenge. Auxier said he’s most proud of getting the station on a good financial footing and making the station more visible in the community. To that end he’s organized music festivals and made sure the station is represented in local parades, with the KDLL Precision Lawn Chair Marching Drill Society and Whizbang Band.
Cultivating and harnessing community support is the key to a thriving public ratio station, and that’s been another aspect Auxier has enjoyed.
“Recruiting and keeping a real good, loyal membership base, working with good boards of directors. There have been lots of different dynamics over the years but all of them very dedicated to making sure that KDLL is a viable part of the community,” Auxier said.
“I’ll miss some of the really fun things to do — being in the drill society, marching in the parades and things. And some of the music festivals we had, I’ll miss those. But I will look forward to attending things as a civilian, not being responsible for stuff,” Auxier said.
Taking over that responsibility is Van Cleave, who leaves a position as reporter and Morning Edition host at KBBI public radio in Homer. She’s originally from Illinois, growing up in Princeton and attending college in Peoria at Bradley University and graduating from the University of Illinois at Springfield in 2008. Her career field seeped into her ears from a young age.
“When I was growing up it was a pretty heavily radioed house. We listened to a lot of WGN out of Chicago. I enjoyed all the talk, I enjoyed all the voices, and then I started getting into music,” she said.
When she was in high school KCRW was streaming music shows over the Internet, to which Van Cleave avidly, if patiently — given the slow connection capabilities — listened.
“It took awhile because, you know, dial up,” she said.
For a while she wanted to be a DJ, especially since she’s also a musician.
“But then I realized news would be the better option because I could get jobs,” she said.
She started at WCBU in Peoria, then spent two years in West Lafayette, Indiana. By 2010 she was feeling burned out on reporting and wondering if she should pursue something else. That precipitated a couple years bouncing around to odd jobs — including accompanying a group of elderly quilters on a trip to Ireland while working as a travel agent. She returned to her hometown, working at her old high school as the after-school programs coordinator.
“While I was doing that I was realizing how much I was missing radio and really wanted to get back into it. I tried pretty consistently, a couple of stations here and there, but nothing really felt like it fit. Nothing felt like I should be picking up everything and moving,” she said.
She’d always been interested in Alaska, she said, so a summer reporter position in Dillingham caught her eye. Worst-case scenario, she hated it but only had to stick it out three months. Best case, she loved it and had a foot in the door of Alaska radio.
It was the latter, from the scenery to hospitality to unique characters. From KDLG in Dillingham in 2012 she went to KSTK in Wrangell, then to KBBI in Homer, and now to KDLL in Kenai.
“I absolutely love it. The people up here, it’s the nicest of the Midwest — everyone is very accommodating, everyone is very welcoming. There are a lot of weird folks up here, I feel like I fit in better than I did in the Lower 48,” she said.
The Kenai position is a step across the divide from news to management, but it’s a challenge she’s excited to meet.
“I’d always kind of wanted to do management of some sort. I wanted to have a bigger stake in what the station sounded like, and when you’re on the news side there’s only so much you can say or do to push in a different direction before you’re kind of out of your depth. I thought, ‘You know, there is a lot of stuff that KDLL could be doing, and a lot of stuff that I want to see KDLL do, and this could be the perfect chance to see if they’ll take a chance on me,’” she said. “I was surprised that I got it. But no one else seemed to be.”
Count Auxier among the unsurprised.
“I think that Ariel’s going to do a great job. She’s young, enthusiastic, energetic, she understands the new social media, she’s very comfortable with web and Internet and all that kind of stuff. I think she’s going to take KDLL forward many more steps,” he said.
Her long-term goals for the station are to increase its financial footing to the point where it can have its own facility, rather than renting space in the Economic Development District building just north of Kenai, and possibly bring on an additional news reporter.
“And making it a real good reflection of the community itself, with incorporating more voices, more people, more volunteers and more events. Just trying to get a foothold a little bit more than what we have now,” she said.
KDLL already provides a stable footing from which to grow.
“I think that it’s got a really loyal base of members and listeners and they’re very passionate people, which is great,” she said. “But there are some folks who don’t know that we’re around, don’t know that we exist. And those are the ones that I want to go after, too, to bring them in and welcome them to the party, essentially. Just so that they know we’re here and we’re interested in hearing from them and trying to make sure our programming and the information and news that we provide is what they’re hoping to get.”
At the moment she’s looking to get more local voices involved at the station, and said the station is always looking for volunteer DJs. Beyond that, she’s happy to hear from listeners about what they want from their radio station.
“I’m always willing to talk about public radio. I am probably one of the nerdiest public radio listeners you’ll come across,” she said.
She’s not expecting to replace Auxier as she steps into his shoes, but to respect the indelible footprint he’s left on KDLL.
“Unfortunately, even if I wanted to I’m not sure the handlebar moustache is going to work out for me,” she said. “I’ll have the curly hair and he’ll have the handlebar moustache.”
As for Auxier, he’s intending on just one thing in retirement.
“I just intend to have fun,” he said.