By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
Aurora (Heames) Galloway, one of my former Skyview students, recalls a summer long ago when Dillingham’s public radio station, KDLG, assisted with an emergency involving a “family matter.”
Because they had been so busy commercial fishing, Aurora, her father and their crew had missed the announcement on the radio, but they were alerted to the problem when a neighboring fisherman motored over in his skiff to give them the news: Back on the Kenai Peninsula, Aurora’s mom needed to speak to Aurora’s dad as soon as possible. Since fishing families and crews over all Bristol Bay had been listening to the same broadcast, she said, “We were instantly surrounded by supportive community.”
On the trip ashore, Aurora and her father received several more waves and shouts from fishermen wanting to make sure they’d heard the message. At the cannery with the nearest telephone, more concerned folks stopped by to offer assistance and encouragement.
“When he returned with the news (that Aurora’s uncle had died), there were people there waiting,” she said. “Waiting to split off their crews if needed to help us out, or waiting just out of curiosity and friendship.”
“I think just (my mom) being able to do something to contact us was a huge relief,” Aurora said. “She was able to leave a message at the radio station, and my dad was on the phone with her in about an hour — far from the days we normally went between calls home. (But) I think for me the value was really that we all were hearing the same thing at the same time — and the value of that is immeasurable.”
Because KDLG’s signal was strong enough to be heard in King Salmon and Naknek, the whole fishing community there responded.
“We all need to hear the escapements,” Aurora said. “We all need to hear the weather. We all are curious if someone has called in to wish us happy birthday or to tell us that Grandma sent a package. It’s a way of feeling included in a community that often feels like just us — our crew and the tender we are selling fish to. Hearing voices that we know are live and close makes us feel like we aren’t the only ones on that boat at 3 a.m.”
Susie Jenkins-Brito also understands the important role public radio plays in supporting commercial fishermen and Bristol Bay communities. Susie and her husband, Bronson Brito, fish out of Dillingham and, like the rest of the fleet, use broadcasts from KDLG extensively for fishery updates and openings.
“Despite cell services coming to Bristol Bay, out on the commercial fishing grounds communication is unpredictable, and the source for up-to-date news is public radio,” Susie said. “Fishermen rely on hearing these reports in order to make decisions on which districts they will choose to fish in and make predictions on where their livelihood will be made.”
Beyond the fishing industry, KDLG’s many public services also provide crucial links between the region’s remote and essentially roadless towns and villages.
“While cell reception and Internet social media networks offer alternative means of communication in our region, there is singlehandedly no other resource that reaches as broad a group of people as KDLG,” Susie said.
In Dillingham, the only alternatives for communitywide information are the weekly Bristol Bay Times newspaper, a Facebook page called the Dillingham Trading Post and commercial radio station KRUP, which has a range of less than 20 miles, is produced in Anchorage by Strait Media and, as far as I can tell, offers next to zero local programming. Consequently, Dillingham residents keep up with their neighbors via KDLG’s “Open Line” call-in show each weekday, and with local news and ideas via “The Yup’ik Word of the Day,” “Bristol Bay Field Notes,” “Bristol Bay and Beyond,” “Bristol Bay Fisheries Report” and “Bristol Bay Sports Roundup.”
KDLG also lists local job opportunities, provides weather and marine forecasts, announces a broad array of fishing-related information, broadcasts local basketball games, supplies live feeds from public meetings and furnishes on-air notes to distant friends and family via the daily “Messenger.”
With employees who live in the city and with its offices in the same building as Dillingham High School, KDLG understands its constituency personally and supplies what it wants and needs. And the same personal connection holds true for the staff of KDLL in Kenai, and for the staffs of other public media throughout Alaska.
Even Don Young, Alaska’s prickly, arrogant U.S. rep-resentative, understands and lauds the value of public broadcasting in this state. In September 2012, on the second day of a Washington, D.C., meeting of the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Young announced, “I am a Republican and I support public broadcasting.”
Actually, Young — unlike most of his Republican colleagues — has been a longtime advocate of public broadcasting. Cognizant of its vital role here, he also told the CPB board, “(Public broadcasting) is probably one of the most important public services we have going for us today in Alaska.”
While Young and other legislators have been doing what they can to keep the federal dollars flowing for public media nationally, it’s been sad to see some of our own legislators attempting to stanch the flow of state dollars for public media in Alaska.
But now, perhaps, despite all the haggling and deal-making in Juneau in recent months, those of us who rely heavily on public radio and television for our information and much of our entertainment can breathe a little easier. After all, if the Senate Finance Committee had had its way back in April, the state would have defunded Alaska Public Media altogether, either severely crippling or causing the extinction of programming that amounts to a lifeline for many state residents.
The hatchet still fell, but it appears to have merely hacked off a limb this time. Tourniquets have been put into place all around the state, and at this point survival seems likely.
For now. Until the budget-cutting knife is wielded once more next spring.
Let’s face it — the daunting financial deficit facing Alaska has prompted our state legislators to request butcher knives rather than scalpels for this fiscal surgery, and understandably so. We’re more than $3.5 billion in the hole, so some serious belt-tightening, budget-slashing, fat-trimming action is called for. The problem is that it’s difficult to know where to operate. Most financial incisions and ablations come with advantages and disadvantages — money saved at the cost of jobs lost or services diminished.
Such is the case with Alaska Public Media.
When the Senate Finance Committee called for drop-kicking APM funding from the state budget, it was chipping a $5.5 million snowball from a $3.5 billion iceberg. That $5.5 million represents the total annual state funding for Alaska’s nearly 30 public radio and television stations — and an overall budgetary savings for the state of just over one-tenth of one percent.
But you’ve gotta start somewhere, right? Every little bit helps? And agencies and organizations that receive massive cuts or lose state funding altogether will just have to make do with less, right?
Ordinarily, perhaps. Not so much in the case of Alaska Public Media.
The potential danger for stations in the APM network comes when reduced state spending causes a loss in federal assistance. Public radio and television stations — such as KDLG in Dillingham, KDLL in Kenai-Soldotna, or KAKM in Anchorage — receive federal matching funds through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. If state dollars dry up, and if other income sources (grants, underwriting and donations) can’t cover the difference, federal dollars will go away. And so will Alaska Public Media.
You can say goodbye to “Talk of Alaska” and “Alaska News Nightly.”
By early May, the House-Senate Conference Committee had hashed out an agreement that reduced the cuts to less than 25 percent. For radio stations such as KDLG, this reduction is likely to be handled via some internal restructuring and without a significant diminishment of services to the public — this time. If the cuts keep coming, however — and they’re supposed to — internal consolidation won’t plug the puncture wounds.
The Senate had attempted to offer some financial protection for what were deemed “sole-source” public radio stations — stations that offer the only source of information or media within a particular community or area. In Dillingham and on the central peninsula, this move would not have protected public radio. The peninsula has numerous commercial radio stations, and Dillingham has KRUP.
In the end, however, the legislative cuts affected public media evenly across the state.
If the cuts keep coming as promised, where are users of public radio in Alaska supposed to turn? Where are the most rural users to go for Bush message services, school basketball broadcasts, community calendars, fishing reports, coverage of municipal meetings, etc.?
There are the commercial stations, of course, for some of the local coverage — weather forecasts, school closures, call-in programs and abbreviated newscasts. And there are podcasts available for many of the bigger national programs, such as “Morning Edition, “Prairie Home Companion” and “This American Life.” In Bush Alaska, however, some areas have no commercial radio stations at all, Internet connectivity can be spotty and the cost of cable or satellite television reception can be prohibitive.
The unfortunate answer may be that, in an Age of Information, many Alaskans may have to settle for being less informed. And those who are less informed may struggle to make knowledgeable decisions, putting them at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to managing their lives within the bigger picture of the state of Alaska.
That would truly be an Alaska family travesty, with no Alaska Public Media to bail us out.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.