Public broadcasting competes against the best and wins

If there is one thing public broadcasting in Alaska has always been good at, it’s doing a lot with a little. On the one hand, I don’t know of a public broadcaster in this state who wouldn’t be happier to be doing a lot with a lot. On the other hand, when the pinch came in the late eighties and the spigot on oil money was squeezed almost shut, the public broadcasting system responded with some pretty heroic efforts.

For starts, public radio and TV stations didn’t close down and they never stopped serving their public. This may not sound like a big deal to urban consumers who have multiple channels from which to choose, but for people in the Bush, public broadcasting is their daily connection with their villages and community life. Everything from village council meetings to local basketball games is aired routinely. When a hunter is out at camp, it’s the radio that lets him know his partner has started out to join him or that his family has sent out some needed goods. Along with the ubiquitous CB radios that crackle constantly in Bush homes, the sound of the local radio station is a regular companion.

When the state’s financial support was drastically cut, public broadcasting learned how to do more with less in very creative ways. They consolidated services like engineering, accounting and fund raising. They formed regional entities that looked for economies of service so that local voices and issues could remain on the air in service to their communities.

And they did this all so well that this year at the Alaska Broadcasters Association’s annual banquet and awards ceremony, both public radio and public television went toe to toe with commercial broadcasters and more than held their own. They walked away with Goldies – as the awards are called – in almost every category in which they could possibly compete.  They took on the giants of commercial broadcasting and showed that when it came to quality and public service, no one does it better.

What this comes down to, of course, is a sense of purpose and service that is rife throughout the public broadcasting network in Alaska. My favorite example of this spirit is the story of my first meeting with Don Rinker when he became general manager at Barrow’s public radio station, KBRW. Don was on his hands and knees scrubbing out the men’s bathroom. 

It was a thankless task and one that had gone undone for much longer than good public health practices would recommend. Don was going to see that it shone in every way just as he expected his station to shine in every way.  When he left after nine years of nonstop effort, KBRW was one of the best radio stations in Alaska’s public broadcasting system.

I just don’t think you are apt to find managers at commercial stations who will scrub out toilets to improve their station’s image unless they are getting paid a WHOLE lot more than public broadcasting pays most of its staff.

Don Rinker recently left the state to relocate in the lower 48 after more than 20 years in public broadcasting in Alaska.  His departure created a huge gap for public broadcasters because his support, encouragement and expertise were unparalleled.  On the other hand, one of the joys of working with this system is knowing how many highly qualified and motivated people there are in it who will step up to fill Don’s shoes.

That’s the thing with being in public broadcasting. Once you get hooked on the adrenaline rush that comes with working hard under frequently less than ideal circumstances and coming up with a winning product, you can’t let it go.

By the way, in deference to full disclosure, I should note that I am a proud member of the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission and this year have been honored to have been elected co-chair of it.  It’s where I get my insight into just how much hard work and dedication goes into products like last year’s broadcast of the Conference of Alaskans. Which, in case you weren’t aware of this, was totally covered by public television with commercial broadcasters taking their feed from our cameras. 

The bottom line for public broadcasters is that it’s all about how best to serve the public’s needs and interests. In Alaska, they do that very well.